Well-timed, nutrient-dense meals and snacks can help you power through your days with steady energy.
Many of us face a personal energy crisis every day. We stagger through the daytime hours, fueled by caffeine and sugar. Our moods swing in tandem with our energy, and cravings drive us to consume foods that only make us feel worse. The daytime slog is often followed by an evening of snacking and drinking that, whether we realize it or not, perpetuates the cycle of exhaustion.
The good news is that making healthier choices at the right time can help you manage your energy all day.
“What you eat can have a significant impact on how you feel,” says Kathie Swift, MS, RDN, LDN, education director for Food As Medicine at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine and author of The Swift Diet.
By consistently making smarter food choices, you can boost your energy throughout the day and avoid those energy-trap behaviors that keep you stuck in a vicious cycle of continuous snacking and cravings.
Chronic low energy can be attributed to many things, of course. But whether the source of your sluggishness is as seemingly straightforward as too many late nights or as complex as chronic fatigue syndrome, your food choices matter, says Josh Axe, DNM, DC, a certified nutrition specialist and author of The Real Food Diet Cookbook.
Are your eating habits dragging you down? Consider the following:
- Excess caffeine can interfere with already-compromised sleep cycles and make it difficult for your adrenals — which regulate the stress-related hormone cortisol — to recover, leaving you exhausted.
- Processed foods, including refined carbs and hydrogenated oils, are inflammatory and difficult to digest, so their presence in your diet can lead to symptoms of fatigue.
- Too much sugar can contribute to low levels of healthy bacteria in your gut, which harms your metabolism and immune system and can lead to feelings of lethargy. Excess sugar and other added sweeteners also make it difficult for your body to regulate blood sugar and can cause widespread inflammation.
See if you recognize yourself and your energy patterns in the following scenarios — and learn how to manage your daily energy by making simple changes to each meal and snack you eat.
1. Early-Morning Blahs
The Scenario: You drag yourself out of bed feeling sleepy, cranky, and brain-foggy, requiring successive infusions of caffeine to oil the wheels that get you moving.
What’s Happening: Your cortisol levels, which should be at their peak in the morning, may instead be in the tank, thanks in part to a hectic life and in part to dietary choices that don’t support proper recovery from daily stressors, says Cindi Lockhart, RD, LD, CPT, nutrition program manager at LT Proactive Care Clinic in St. Louis Park, Minn.
Agitated and anxious? Your cortisol may be too high too early, which can trigger cravings for sugars and starches, she explains. (For more on a healthy cortisol balance, see “The Cortisol Curve“.)
Or, since you probably haven’t had anything to drink all night (and maybe you’re not a big water drinker), you could be dehydrated. “When clients come to me with low-energy complaints, hydration is the first thing I ask about,” says Lockhart. “If you’re not adequately hydrated, your blood gets dehydrated. It’s like your body is trying to push oxygen and nutrients through sludge to get to your cells.”
Energy Trap: If you opt for a fast-digesting breakfast of refined carbs and sugar (think cereal, bagels, doughnuts, all-fruit smoothies, highly sweetened coffee), you’ll trigger the first of what will likely be many erratic, up-and-down cycles of energy as your blood glucose (sugar) spikes and falls. Skipping breakfast altogether may trigger overeating later.
Eat This Instead: Stop the cycle before it starts with a breakfast built on protein, healthy fats, and high-fiber carbs. These will help restore blood glucose to a normal level after your overnight fast and gradually raise glycogen (the stored form of glucose) in the cells of your muscles and liver. They will also help regulate cortisol.
After drinking a glass or two of water, try a breakfast of pasture-raised eggs, which deliver slow-digesting protein (add veggies to help stabilize blood glucose), or a bowl of cooked steel-cut oats garnished with nuts, fresh berries, and organic whole milk to steady your blood sugar. (See “From Bland to Grand” for ideas on upgrading your morning oatmeal.)
Load up smoothies with protein-rich ingredients like almond butter, protein powder, or yogurt, and add fiber with kale, spinach, and parsley. (For a protein-packed smoothie recipe, go to “Learn How to Make a Whole-Food Protein Smoothie“.) Try taking your coffee black.
For healthy fats, Axe recommends coconut oil, which is composed of medium-chain fatty acids that go directly to the liver, where they’re immediately converted to energy. He’s also an advocate of avocados: “Avocados are full of monounsaturated fats, which are shown to reverse insulin resistance and regulate blood-sugar levels,” he says.
2. Midmorning Roller Coaster
The Scenario: After a doughnut and extra-large coffee, you’re absolutely wired, flying through the morning with your heart racing. Then, around midmorning, you hit a wall: Your energy plummets, that brain fog returns, and your mood sours.
What’s Happening: One of insulin’s jobs is to draw glucose from your bloodstream and use it for immediate energy (which is why you buzzed around all morning) or store it as glycogen for future use. When you regularly consume excess refined carbohydrates, however, your body’s ability to regulate glucose can go awry, and insulin will pull too much glucose out of your bloodstream. That’s when your blood sugar bottoms out and you find yourself on the downward plunge of the energy roller coaster.
Energy Trap: Now is not the time to double down on your bagel-and-coffee strategy. “Giving in to the carb-crash cycle the first time increases the likelihood that you’ll go through the same thing just a few hours later when your body is craving another cheap, quick high,” Axe warns.
Consumed in excess, caffeine is yet another stressor on the body and may contribute to elevated cortisol levels. (For more on how your body responds to caffeine, check out “This Is Your Body on Caffeine“.)
Eat This Instead: To keep your brain and body moving along and to support your body’s natural blood-glucose regulation, reach for something that will gradually raise and then stabilize your energy levels. “Protein will bring your blood sugar up more slowly than refined carbs and level it off for several hours,” explains Lockhart. “Fiber will grab on to blood sugar and lipids in the gut and prevent reabsorption into your bloodstream, helping stabilize blood-sugar and energy levels.”
Good snack options include raw veggies and hummus, unsalted nuts or nut butter, or roasted edamame. You’ll digest these foods more slowly and feel fuller for longer.
3. Post-Lunch Slump
The Scenario: You decided to be “good” at lunch and limit yourself to lettuce and low-fat dressing from the salad bar. Or maybe the pasta bar was more compelling. Either way, you now feel an overwhelming desire to take a nap.
What’s Happening: Your body’s cortisol levels naturally begin to drop sometime between 1 and 3 p.m., and eating a midday meal low in protein and fiber (like your lightweight salad) only exacerbates the lethargic effect of this daily dip, says Swift. And of course, if you went for the pasta, your digestive system has already made fast work of those quick-burning carbs and you’re back at the bottom of the blood-sugar ride.
Energy Trap: Don’t fall for the caffeine and sugar ruse a third time. The more you rely on this strategy, the more you set the stage for long-term ramifications, including chronically elevated cortisol levels, leptin resistance (which causes your body to think it’s hungry when it’s not), and, ultimately, insulin resistance.
“All of these hormone impacts mean your body’s cells are not receptive to bringing in glucose for energy,” says Lockhart. This causes glucose, insulin, and triglycerides (fats stored in fat cells in your blood that are meant to be accessed for energy between meals) to build up in the blood. “This leads to hunger — your body is not getting the signal that it’s been fed — which leads to fat storage around the midsection and increased risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease,” Lockhart explains.
Eat This Instead: Think big-picture health and long-term energy: Choose something your microbes will feast on, Swift suggests. “Microbes play a huge role in our energy levels. Fiber feeds gut microbes what they need, and fermented foods inoculate the gut and add to the healthy population of microbes.” Try a small cup of plain, whole-fat, unsweetened yogurt (look for a label marked “live, active cultures”). If you want something savory, nosh on some unpasteurized dill pickles.
As for tomorrow’s lunch? “Next time, choose a lunch that’s nutrient-dense and rich in protein, fiber, and healthy fats,” Swift says. “Try bean soup with veggies and an apple on the side, or a greens-and-veggie salad with chicken, olives, and a great citrus dressing.” (For tips on how to transform underwhelming salads into long-sustaining meals, see “From Bland to Grand“.)
4. Not-So-Happy Hour
The Scenario: Stressed yet listless, you want to indulge in a glass of red wine and a bag of chips the moment you walk through your front door.
What’s Happening: Cortisol and adrenaline — two hormones that follow your body’s internal clock and regulate sleep and other cycles — are well into their final descent of the day. Your body is preparing for evening, not the “second shift” of your job. “Often we leave too long a gap between lunch and dinner, so blood sugar may take a dip by this time of day,” explains Swift.
On top of that, your hankering for salty snacks may be the result of not drinking enough water during the day — sodium helps your body hold on to the water it needs, so you crave it when you’re dehydrated.
Energy Trap: “Indulging in alcohol and snacks in the evening is often how we deal with emotional stress,” says Lockhart. “However, it’s a destructive pattern we set.” It’s also another physical stressor for the body to deal with. Plus, because alcohol decreases inhibition, excess drinking sets you up for more mindless overeating.
Eat This Instead: Make choices that will help your body restore itself and set the stage for going to bed in a few hours. “If you miss out on enough water during the day, drink a tall glass of pure water as soon as you get home,” Swift says. “Or enjoy a hydrating and energizing mocktail by mixing fresh lime juice, ginger, and sparkling water.” (For ideas, see “Summer Mocktails“.)
After you’ve quenched your thirst, check in to see if you really can’t wait until dinner to eat something or are just falling into a mindless snack habit. If you’re really, truly hungry, Swift says, “enjoy nuts, seeds, or half an avocado to tide you over until supper. They’ll help create a steady rise in blood sugar and energy levels.”
5. Late-Night Noshing
The Scenario: It’s really time for bed, but that pint of ice cream in the freezer is calling your name.
What’s Happening: You may actually be hardwired to feel hungry at this time of day. A small but controlled study of healthy, normal-weight adults published in the journal Obesity identified a natural circadian rhythm tied to hunger, with participants’ peak hunger “set” to occur at around 8 p.m. The researchers theorize that this evening hunger may promote the consumption of larger meals before the fasting period of sleep.
Energy Trap: A pattern of nighttime snacking would make biological sense if we still needed protective fat stores for perilous nights in caves (or didn’t need to sleep though the night). “But at this point in the day, your cortisol levels should be shifting into low gear,” Swift says. If you’re up and eating, your body has to ramp up for a spike in blood sugar and the process of digestion, and that could interfere with the cortisol dip you need for restful sleep.
Eat This Instead: First, really check in on why you want a snack this late at night, says Lockhart. “Is it actual hunger — as in, your stomach is growling? Or is it an emotional outcry, or a habit you have created?” If it’s not truly hunger, look for other things to help you wind down, whether journaling, meditation, or talking with your partner or a friend.
If you really are so hungry that it’s impeding your ability to sleep, a small snack (not a full-on fridge raid) might be beneficial, according to a recent study published in the journal Nutrients. Researchers found that a 150-calorie protein shake consumed 30 minutes before bed helps improve protein synthesis, boosts metabolism, and has other positive effects. If you want to try a protein-rich snack before your head hits the pillow, keep it modest — half a banana with a tablespoon of almond butter, 4 ounces of cottage cheese, or a couple of raw protein balls. (Find a recipe at “Almond-Butter Protein Balls“.)