Got the midafternoon sleepies? When a good old-fashioned catnap isn’t possible, most of us head straight for coffee or chocolate—anything to help bolster sinking energy levels. Unfortunately, stimulants like caffeine won’t sustain energy over the long haul. But smart nutrient picks can. “Our bodies need carbohydrates for energy, but they also need protein and fat to help slow the absorption of glucose in the bloodstream and to build and repair the body,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a Sarasota, Florida-based national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

To strike the ideal nutrient balance for sustained energy, Gerbstadt recommends 30 percent to 40 percent of total calories from mostly polyunsaturated fats (such as olive oil, fish oil, nuts, and seeds), 20 percent to 30 percent protein, and 40 percent to 50 percent carbohydrates, preferably whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. In a pinch, the best energy bars hit these ratios, but experts say most of the time you’re better off eating whole foods. Here are our top healthy fuel foods.

Oatmeal

Loaded with stress-reducing B vitamins and soluble fiber, this whole grain offers more sustained energy than the refined grains in cold cereal or refined-flour toast. “Oatmeal breaks down into the type of energy you actually can use in the body,” says Gerbstadt. “So if you don’t need the carbohydrates for energy right away, your body will store up to 400 calories of the excess in the liver as glycogen, a molecule that acts like an energy reserve.”

On your plate
For breakfast try oatmeal topped with apples, cinnamon, and almond slivers; make low-sugar granola by lightly coating rolled oats with apple juice, adding dried fruits and nuts, and baking at 325 degrees, stirring occasionally, until toasted.

Recipes
Oatmeal Pancakes
Oatmeal, Carrot, and Apple Breakfast Squares
Cherry-Cinnamon Baked Oatmeal