Foods That Increase Energy & Banish the Midday Slump
If your clients often complain to you about being tired or fatigued, they’re certainly not alone. Many of us live busy, hectic lifestyles built on stress.
Work, family and home responsibilities, devices going off all the time, and not enough sleep make a recipe for consistent low energy levels. And yet this is how many of us live.
The obvious culprits that lead to low-energy, especially in the afternoon when many people feel a slump, are inadequate sleep and stress. We, as trainers, can try to help with this by promoting exercise, but there is more to fatigue, and another big factor is food.
Diet can play a big role in energy levels. What we choose to eat and when makes a difference. Help your clients understand how food choices impact energy levels and how they can eat to beat fatigue.
How Diet Impacts Energy Levels
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet every day helps stabilize energy levels. Conversely, eating poorly most days will leave you feeling drained and fatigued much of the time. There are several ways that foods you choose and overall diet impacts energy levels:
- A healthy diet decreases the risk for a number of chronic diseases, while a poor diet increases the risk. Chronic illnesses, like obesity, lead to fatigue and tiredness.
- Skipping meals or dieting too often for too long can lead to fatigue because you simply don’t have the fuel or nutrients your body needs.
- Eating too much at once, particularly at lunchtime, causes a later slump in energy.
- Foods with complex carbohydrates, like whole grains or starchy vegetables, give the body lasting fuel for sustained energy.
- Simple carbs, like sugar and white, refined grains, causes a quick rise in blood sugar followed by a slump and drop in energy.
- Too much alcohol reduces the quality of sleep, leading to fatigue the next day.
- Caffeinated drinks and foods can perk you up, but too late in the day they can mess with your sleep.
Foods That Increase Energy Provide Sustained Fuel
The foods that keep energy levels steadier throughout the day are full of nutrients in balance. They have macronutrients that provide lasting energy, not just sugar and other simple carbs that boost energy immediately. Focus on whole foods that have a balance of protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats for sustained energy.
For a quick review of protein, carbohydrates, and fat, check out this ISSA blog post.
Foods That Drain Energy Seem Like Quick Fixes
It’s tempting to turn to something sugary, sweet, or caffeinated when the mid-afternoon slump strikes. These foods and drinks are quick fixes in disguise. They give you a quick bump of energy and then send you back down into a fatigue spiral. Avoid very fatty foods, processed foods, and simple, refined carbohydrates to dodge energy pits.
Foods That Increase Energy All Day
To enjoy sustained, all-day energy without the dreaded afternoon sleepiness, eat several small meals and snacks throughout the day. This gives your body and brain a steady supply of fuel so there are no slumps.
Choose mostly whole foods, including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean meat, fish and poultry, nuts and seeds, and legumes. A balanced diet of these types of foods should keep you healthy and energized, but some foods are particular powerhouses of sustained energy:
Start the day out right with a medium-sized breakfast of foods that will give you energy until lunch or a light mid-morning snack. Oatmeal is a great choice because it provides complex carbohydrates and fiber. The body absorbs energy from whole grains like oatmeal slowly, for an even energy supply.
For the best breakfast, also include a protein with your oatmeal. This will help you stay full longer, and like complex carbs, provides another slow source of energy. Greek yogurt, which is high in protein, is a great option. Just add a dollop to the top of your oatmeal.
There’s a reason so many athletic events offer bananas for recovery snacks. This powerhouse fruit boosts energy levels quickly without a later slump.
Choose a banana as part of breakfast or for a mid-morning snack. When hungry or tired, we tend to reach for sugar, and a banana can satisfy that urge in a healthier way. A banana has carbs, fiber, B vitamins, and potassium.
Another good food for breakfast is the humble egg. It provides protein for lasting, slow-release fuel that keeps you feeling full. Eggs are particularly high in leucine, an amino acid that stimulates the production of energy.(1) They are also rich in B vitamins, essential for energy processes. Keep hard-boiled eggs in the office for a quick snack during the day.
Tasty as part of breakfast, lunch, or dinner, sweet potatoes are rich in complex carbohydrates. They also have plenty of fiber so you absorb carbs and get energy from them slowly. Sweet potatoes also contain significant amounts of manganese, a mineral required for the breakdown of other nutrients to supply the body with energy.(2)
Instead of raiding the breakroom for leftover birthday cake, choose a piece of dark chocolate for an afternoon pick-me-up. Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants, which improves blood flow. Greater blood flow means more oxygen to the brain to fight fatigue and improve overall function. Dark chocolate also has moderate amounts of caffeine.
While this may not be anyone’s go-to idea for a snack, adding leafy greens to meals and smoothies can improve overall energy. Spinach is particularly good for providing iron, sometimes deficient in people experiencing regular fatigue. Any type of dark leafy green, including collards, kale, and spinach, provides a large variety of vitamins and minerals.
When you’re craving fat, try walnuts. These nuts contain omega-3 fatty acids, the so-called healthy fats, which are good for brain and heart health. One particular fat walnuts are rich in is alpha-linolenic acid. This fat is needed for energy production. The fiber in the nuts will slow absorption and the fat will leave you feeling satisfied. Go for just a small handful, as these are calorie-dense.
Avoid These Foods to Avoid Fatigue
Sustaining energy with diet is about more than choosing the right strategic foods. It also involves avoiding certain foods that will drag your energy down. In general, avoid processed foods, especially those with high levels of fat or sugar. Also avoid any foods high in refined, simple carbs and sugar.
Unlike the above foods that are absorbed slowly to give you lasting energy, these will cause a spike in blood sugar. You may feel a quick burst of energy, but your blood sugar will drop soon after and you’ll feel the effect as fatigue.
Many Breakfast Cereals
Some cereals are just fine for breakfast, or even a snack. Those that are made with whole grains and have little to no added sugar are smart choices. But, many cereals, even those are marketed to be “healthy,” have more sugar and refined grains than you realize. You will absorb them quickly and won’t stay full for long.
Help your clients cut down on or eliminate sugar in their diets. Get some easy-to-follow tips here.
Sweetened Caffeine Drinks
Energy drinks, lattes loaded with caramel sauce, and sweet tea are all tempting to reach for when tired. Some caffeine is a perfectly healthy way to overcome a little fatigue, but don’t overdo it. And, avoid the drinks loaded with sugar. They’ll only give you the dreaded crash later, and they add unnecessary calories. A small cup of coffee or black tea can give you a little boost, but avoid them in the afternoon or you may struggle to sleep later.
Any fatty or sugary food is an energy drain, but a fried and sugared food, like a donut, is the worst. Avoid at all costs if you struggle with fatigue. The sugar will give you a crash later and the fat will leave you feeling sluggish. Also, high-fat, low-fiber foods like donuts slow your digestion, so you won’t even get much of an energy boost from the sugar.
Sweet Fruits and Juices
Fruit can sometimes be misleading as a source of nutrition. Any whole fruit is good for you and better than processed sweets. However, with too much sugar and not enough fiber, you will get a spike of energy and then a crash. If you’re struggling with energy, avoid grapes, cherries, and mangoes. Instead, choose berries, which are lower and sugar and higher in fiber. Fruit juice is the worst option because all the fiber has been eliminated.
Fatigue is something that most people deal with, and diet can be a part of the solution. Encourage your clients to eat well generally but also help them make smarter choices for optimizing energy throughout the day.
Interested in coaching more clients to improve their diets? Check out the ISSA’s course on nutrition. You’ll learn about the science and psychology of nutrition coaching.
1. Duan, Y., Li, F., Li, Y., Tang, Y., Kong, X., Feng, Z., Anthony, T.G., Watford, M., Hou, Y., Wu, G., and Yin, Y. (2016). The Role of Leucine and its Metabolites in Protein and Energy Metabolism. Amino Acids. 48(1), 41-51. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26255285
2. Zablocka-Slowinska, K. and Grajeta, H. (2012). The Role of Manganese in Etiopathogenesis and Prevention of Selected Diseases. Postepy. Hig. Med. Dosw. 6(66), 549-53. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22922155