Do you start the day feeling fatigued? Or hit an afternoon energy slump that makes you want to take a nap under your desk? If so, your lack of get-up-and-go may have something to do with the way you are fueling (or failing to fuel) your body.
If you’re cutting calories and skipping meals in an effort to control your weight – or depending on processed and fast foods, convenience-store snacks, caffeine, or candy to get you through your overly busy days – there’s a good chance you’re simply not giving your body the essential nutritional building blocks it needs to operate at peak capacity.
“Many people think they have a willpower problem when really they’re experiencing a lack of nutrient-dense food,” says nutritional psychologist Marc David, MA, author of The Slow Down Diet: Eating for Pleasure, Energy and Weight Loss.
Making a few small changes in the way you eat can free up reserves of energy you didn’t realize you had. For example, when you eat too much at once, eat too quickly, consume foods that don’t agree with you, or eat too close to bedtime, these habits put stressful demands on your body that effectively drain valuable energy from your cells.
And when you skip meals, fail to drink enough water, or go on crash diets, you starve your body at the cellular level, which can also quickly run down your energy stores. Rather than resorting to caffeine and sugar fixes to provide short-lived energy bursts, try tuning up your metabolism for the long haul with the following suggestions:
1. Pace Yourself
Start your day with a little protein, like nut butters, eggs, or a protein shake, to help balance your energy throughout the day, says Liz Applegate, PhD, senior lecturer in nutrition and director of sports nutrition at the University of California, Davis. And drink plenty of water (several ounces per hour) to prevent dehydration, which can lead to fatigue and headaches.
Rather than depending on big meals, which divert blood flow to the digestive tract and, in turn, make you feel sleepy, eat several smaller meals throughout the day. Especially avoid large meals at bedtime. Your body will spend the night processing food rather than healing and repairing tissue.
Eating meals too fast can also send the body into a stress response. “Our bodies are not designed to take in a lot of food quickly,” says David. So the food just sits there in your stomach, the enzymatic activity in your entire gut stalls, and you lose more energy.
2. Focus on Digestion
When you look at a juicy mango and feel your mouth start to water, it’s a reminder that your digestive system works more efficiently when you’re focusing on your meal rather than on the TV or the newspaper. Or, as David puts it, “Our awareness of the meal increases our metabolism of the meal.”
3. Ditch the Caffeine
Relying on caffeine to fill the energy gap just makes matters worse. Caffeine produces energy by stimulating your central nervous system. Not only can excessive caffeine intake overwork your glandular system, it can also quickly deplete vitamins B and C, magnesium, and several microminerals.
4. Respect Your Endocrine System
Eating a balanced diet supports your entire endocrine (glandular) system by keeping your hormones balanced. “Your hormones are directly connected to what you put in your mouth, and they profoundly impact your metabolism and available energy,” says functional-medicine doctor Mark Hyman, MD. Eating sugary, starchy, processed foods drains your energy by increasing insulin and cortisol, he notes. Eating unhealthy fats and drinking too much alcohol can destabilize your energy by creating excess estrogen and other hormones.
“Along with insulin and cortisol, your thyroid hormone is one of the big-three hormones that control metabolism and weight,” Hyman says. To keep your thyroid up to speed, he suggests cutting back on caffeine and eating more of the following: seaweed and sea vegetables (for iodine); sardines and salmon (iodine, omega-3 fats, and vitamin D); Brazil nuts, scallops, and herring (selenium); and dandelion and mustard greens (vitamin A).
5. Supplement Wisely
While experts disagree about the role of supplements in supporting energy metabolism, most agree that getting inadequate nutrition is a surefire way to compromise energy and vitality. If you’re low on energy because you have a vitamin or mineral deficiency, you may benefit from taking a multivitamin, B vitamins, essential fatty acids, supergreens supplements, digestive enzymes, amino acids, or other supplements recommended by your nutrition or healthcare adviser. But for maintaining balanced energy and overall health, nothing can beat the effectiveness of eating whole foods that are as close to nature as possible.
From tinkering with your diet to making larger adjustments in your lifestyle, you don’t have to make all these changes at once to enjoy a noticeable uptick in energy. Start by changing the things that seem doable now. And never underestimate what even a small change can achieve. “Energy is a lifestyle,” says Applegate. “And when you change how you eat, you change how you feel in your everyday life.”
This is adapted from “Eating for Energy,” which appeared in the June 2007 issue of Experience Life.