We’ve all been there. It’s 3 pm and your energy tanks. You begin dreaming about what’s for dinner while avoiding your inbox. You’re craving something sweet or caffeinated (or both.) And so, you head to the pantry. You grab a generous handful of chocolate chips and beeline for the fridge. An iced coffee or energy drink will get you through the rest of the day, right? Fueled with sugar and a glass of caffeine, you head back to your desk. You feel reinvigorated—but only temporarily. Thirty minutes later, your blood sugar roller coaster takes a steep dive, so… you head back to the pantry. Rinse and repeat until it’s time for dinner. If this is a roller coaster you want to avoid, then let’s take a look at the best foods for energy so you can give your body the fuel it needs to sustain a full day’s work without that slump (or at the very least, minimize the snacking!)
How Food Affects Energy
When energy is low, your body signals for a quick boost. This is completely normal. Unfortunately, the desire to reach for caffeine, chips or something sweet often outweighs the desire to grab something more nutritious and satiating. A pick-me-up—like an energy drink or sweetened beverage—delivers a quick hit of pleasure (due to a boost in serotonin) that ends in a drop in blood sugar and an energy crash. Pretzels, candy, and other processed, refined carbs do the same thing.
This subsequent drop in blood sugar actually increases cravings for more of the same foods. The cycle repeats itself, day after day. In essence, it’s important to understand how food affects energy. After all, it can either support or diminish your stamina and with all of the demands of life in mind, having even-keeled energy throughout the day is key. While it’s common for energy to rise and fall slightly during the day (we have cortisol, in part, to thank), nutrition can greatly impact this natural ebb and flow.
Managing Blood Sugar
At the root of it all is blood sugar regulation. Blood sugar is the master controller. It dictates our hunger, our cravings, and of course—our energy. We tend to feel our best when our blood sugar is balanced. Meaning, it’s not too high (i.e. after a couple of chocolate chip cookies) or too low (i.e. we are starving.) Keeping blood sugar in check supports brain health, mood, and energy levels.
When blood sugar looks like high peaks and low valleys in the body, you either feel wired or tired and very little of the in-between—the goal is to find the in-between. Our bodies need fuel, especially carbohydrates, but certain carbohydrates can elicit an unwanted blood sugar response. Excessive amounts of carbohydrates, especially those that are refined and loaded with sugar, can cause fatigue. However, stabilizing glucose levels is the secret weapon to controlling and managing energy.
Start Your Day With Protein
When it comes to keeping glucose levels stable, the way you begin your day is essential. Along with stress management and a grounding morning routine, what you put in your body can make a significant impact. Breakfast recipes for energy and focus include protein and fiber-rich smoothies, scrambled eggs (or tofu) with greens and avocado, plain Greek yogurt with ground flax and berries, chia pudding with nut butter, or healthy pancakes made with alternative flours, like almond or coconut.
In essence, quality protein, slowly digested carbohydrates (like low-glycemic fruits and veggies), and healthy fats are the building blocks for an energizing morning. Protein, in particular, supports muscle health, satiety hormones, and insulin sensitivity. A high-protein breakfast—compared to a high carbohydrate breakfast—helps the body control glucose, thus allowing for stable energy. Benefits muscle health, satiety hormones, and glucose levels. Think of the energy from protein as a time-release capsule: It steadily keeps you fueled for hours.
Foods That Deplete Energy
Before diving into the best foods for energy, let’s touch on foods that deplete energy. Right off the bat, processed grains (white bread, white pasta, etc.) lack fiber. The fiber-containing outer layer of the grain is removed during processing, which means that the carbohydrate is digested and absorbed more quickly than whole grains. This causes a spike and crash in energy.
Along those lines, breakfast cereals are typically refined carbs with added sugar, spiking insulin levels and simultaneously increasing cravings for more sugar. Many yogurts are also packed with sugar, causing the same energy spike and crash. Furthermore, fried and fast foods can drain your energy.
Usually, these foods are high in fat and low in fiber, two contributing factors to slowed digestion and low energy. Lastly, rather than avoid caffeine and alcohol, simply tap into how these beverages make you feel. Wired? Sleepy? If that’s the case, try to pair them with the best foods for energy—or consume them in moderation.
The Best Foods for Energy
To maintain balanced energy throughout the day, look no further than what’s on your plate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Healthy drinks and nourishing snacks (especially before a workout!) are important as well.
The foundation of building nutritious, energy-boosting snacks and meals starts with whole, unprocessed foods. Think Ingredients that are as close to the farm or the ocean as possible. The more processed it is, the more additives it has, etc., the more likely it will cause a surge than depletion of energy. Satisfying fuel is a combination of high-quality protein, healthy fats, complex carbs, and gut-boosting fiber.
The Top 15 Foods for Energy:
- Dark Chocolate
- Greek Yogurt
- Green Tea
- Goji Berries
- Sweet Potato
Almonds (and nuts in general) are packed with nutrients to promote energy. They’re full of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, aiding in satiation and prolonged energy. Plus, nuts have a variety of other vitamins and minerals to increase energy production and decrease overall tiredness.
Recipe: Honey Almond Granola by Cookie + Kate
For a steady and sustained energy boost, avocados are ideal. Loaded with fiber and healthy fats, avocados promote optimal blood glucose levels. Their healthy fats can be stored in the body for future energy use.
Recipe: Avocado Chicken Salad by Gimme Delicious
Known for their ability to improve energy and stamina, beets are a powerful nutrient. Beets contain carbs, fiber, and natural sugar for stable energy. They also contain nitrates, which help improve blood flow, allowing for increased oxygen delivery to tissues. This, in turn, may increase energy levels.
Recipe: Beet Salad With Feta And Pistachios by Feasting At Home
Along with helping fight inflammation, the antioxidants in berries may help fight fatigue. Their natural sugars can also provide an energy boost. Darker berries (i.e. blackberries) tend to be higher in natural antioxidants, which may reduce more inflammation and fatigue in the body.
Recipe: Paleo Blackberry Cobbler by The Roasted Root
Dark chocolate, like berries, contains powerful antioxidants to increase blood flow throughout the body—potentially reducing mental fatigue and improving mood. Furthermore, chocolate contains caffeine and theobromine, both of which can boost energy levels. Generally speaking, the darker the chocolate, the less sugar it contains.
Recipe: Dark Chocolate Overnight Oats by Simply Quinoa
Just one large egg contains nearly 18% of your daily value of vitamin B2, otherwise known as riboflavin. Riboflavin helps the body convert food into fuel, which is used to produce energy. Eggs are also very satisfying, due to their ratio of healthy fats to protein.
Recipe: Green Shakshuka by Downshiftology
Greek yogurt is rich in simple sugars, lactose and galactose. When broken down, these sugars provide immediate energy. Greek yogurt is also packed with protein, helping slow the digestion of lactose and galactose, thereby providing a steady release of energy.
Recipe: Greek Yogurt Tzatziki Dip by The Healthy Maven
Similar to coffee, green tea contains coffee, but it also contains a compound called L-theanine. L-theanine moderates the effects of caffeine, producing a steadier boost of energy and alertness. Green tea is also known for its antioxidants, aiding in flushing toxins from the body and potentially improving insulin resistance.
Recipe: Matcha Green Tea Ice Cream by Love And Lemons
Goji berries are often referred to as a superfood, and for good reason. The phytochemicals in goji berries provide essential fiber, immune support, and cell development. Furthermore, they are linked to improved energy and mood.
Recipe: Goji Berry Balls by Running On Real Food
Leafy green veggies, like kale and spinach, are high in many nutrients, especially iron. Iron deficiency is linked to fatigue, so adding leafy greens to your plate can improve iron stores, thus improving alertness.
Recipe: Baked Kale Chips by Joy Food Sunshine
For sustained energy release, oatmeal is a well-touted option. Oats contain beta-glucan, a soluble fiber that forms into a thick gel when combined with water. The presence of this gel delays both stomach emptying and the absorption of glucose in the blood, meaning it provides a slower release of energy.
Recipe: Savory Oatmeal by Eating Bird Food
Pistachios, like all nuts, are an energy-dense food. Pistachios are rich in fiber and protein, both of which increase feelings of satiety. Their rich protein and healthy fat content make them an ideal food for energy all day long.
Recipe: Pistachio Pesto by Nourish Nutrition
With a decent amount of carbs and fiber, walnuts are a plant-based powerhouse. High in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, walnuts can increase energy by decreasing inflammation and increasing antioxidant levels.
Recipe: Apple Walnut Salad by Little Broken
Wild-caught salmon provides a host of benefits, such as the potential ability to lower the risk of heart disease, support brain health, and build strong bones. This source of protein is plentiful in all B vitamins, which help metabolize energy. Its omega-3 content also helps lower inflammation.
Recipe: Easy Lemon Thyme Roasted Salmon by The Defined Dish
As with many of the aforementioned ingredients, sweet potatoes are high in fiber and keep you feeling fuller longer. With their natural sugars, they boost energy and aid in alertness. They’re also rich in vitamin C, beta carotene, and other essential energy nutrients.
Recipe: Crispy Roasted Sweet Potatoes With Yogurt, Herbs, and Everything Spice by Camille Styles