Health Coaching: Energy-Boosting Foods: The low-tech way to feel your best

by Callie Huneycutt, MS, RD, LDN

Ever feel like you hit a slump everyday around 3pm? Maybe you start dozing off while watching TV or suddenly have a wave of fatigue while out running errands. You may notice you have a hard time maintaining motivation to get to the evening exercise class. What are we missing in all of these situations? Energy. Energy is defined as, “the strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity.” Why is sufficient energy so difficult for many of us to acquire or maintain? Often we develop an energy deficit due to a variety of reasons: hectic schedules, inadequate sleep, stress, poor eating habits, chronic health conditions, or even medications.

Energy is actually closely related to our metabolism. Our metabolism is the rate at which our body processes nutrients (aka food!) for energy. The energy created is what allows our body to function properly and sustain life. The definition of a calorie is energy. Our bodies require food for energy the same way our cars require gas for fuel. If we are not providing our bodies with the right type of fuel, and enough of it, how can we expect to feel our best? While sometimes a decrease in energy may be the result of medical conditions beyond our control, many aspects of our lifestyle can also contribute. 

Adequate Calories = Adequate Energy

Sometimes we just don’t eat enough, at least not enough for our bodies to effectively do the things we need them to do. For various reasons, like busy schedules or even trying to lose weight, we may be more inclined to skip meals or go long periods of time without eating. When we don’t provide ourselves with adequate calories, our body has to compensate for the lack of energy. Think of this like your cell phone going on “low power mode” in order to conserve energy if your battery is low. For this same reason, it is a good idea to avoid overly restrictive diets. One of the hallmark symptoms of low calorie or low carbohydrate diets is noticeable fatigue. You can often see an increase in your energy level by just making sure to eat something every 3-4 hours. 

On the other hand, overeating can also cause you to feel sluggish. Think of how you may feel after Thanksgiving dinner or a big meal. Your body has to use energy in order to break down food and absorb nutrients. When we eat too much at one time, it causes our body to overwork and use too much energy, which in turn can lead to feeling lethargic. Overeating can also affect sleeping patterns, and good quality sleep is essential for maintaining energy throughout the day. 

Balance matters

Making sure your meals and snacks are balanced amongst macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) can help create sustained energy. Our body metabolizes, or breaks down, each of these nutrients differently. Carbohydrates are a good source of quick energy; however, they are digested rapidly, and we often feel an energy “crash” shortly after eating them. On the other hand, protein and fat take longer to break down. When we eat carbohydrates together with protein and fat, we usually stay more satisfied and have longer lasting energy.  Here are some easy snack options that provide good sources of protein, fiber, or healthy fats:

  • Apple and peanut butter
  • Handful of nuts with fruit
  • Greek yogurt topped with fruit
  • Carrots or celery with hummus
  • Whole grain crackers with low-fat cheese or peanut butter
  • Whole grain toast with avocado 
  • Cottage cheese with fruit

Choose high-quality “fuel”

Adequate micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are equally as important. Our bodies run more efficiently when we eat nutrient-dense foods. With a diet consisting of a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy oils, we are providing our body with “high-quality” fuel. For energy, we need good stores of iron, B vitamins, magnesium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. These antioxidant-rich foods can even help with mental clarity and focus. Eating foods that are poor sources of micronutrients, like those made with refined carbohydrates (sweets, breads and pastries made with white flour, salty snacks, and fast food), lack the essential nutrients our bodies need and don’t set our metabolism up for success. 

Make sensible beverage choices

It can be tempting to reach for another cup of coffee or a soda in order to get a quick burst of energy. Unfortunately, that is often all it is: a quick, temporary jolt of energy that may bring you crashing down an hour later. Similarly, be mindful of alcoholic beverages. Alcohol is a depressant which can affect one’s energy level even many hours after consuming it. It can interfere with good, quality sleep leaving you feeling groggy the next day. In addition, be sure to drink adequate water. Water is actually one of seven major classes of essential nutrients, meaning we have to supply ourselves with adequate amounts through food and drink for our body to function properly. A good goal to start with is getting at least 64 ounces of water daily. 

Get moving

In addition to having a healthy, balanced diet, one great way to increase your energy level is to increase physical activity. Getting consistent physical activity helps support a healthy metabolism. It is recommended that all adults get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity. This could include a brisk walk, strength training, dancing, water aerobics, or participating in a sport. If physical activity is not typically a regular part of your routine, try breaking up your day with short, 10-minute bursts of activity and increase as you are able.

Callie Huneycutt, MS, RD, LDN is a Health Coach and Registered Dietitian at Pinehurst Medical Clinic in Pinehurst and Sanford. She can be reached at 910-235-3347 or chuneycutt@pinehurstmedical.com.