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.
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.
These fruits are loaded with vitamin C, which your body needs to make a compound called carnitine. “Carnitine shuttles fat into the muscles where it can be used for energy,” explains Carol Johnston, PhD, RD, director of the nutrition program at Arizona State University. “And when you use fat for fuel [instead of glucose], you can exercise for longer periods of time without feeling fatigued.” In onestudy, taking a 500-mg vitamin C supplement also increased physical-work efficiency.
On your plate
Squeeze lemon juice over greens and pasta salads, and in your water or tea; top salads with mandarin or clementine sections; and scoop out half a grapefruit for breakfast. Other vitamin C–rich foods: peppers, broccoli, papaya, and mangoes.
After years of getting a bad rap for their high cholesterol content, eggs are making a comeback. “They consistently outrank milk, beef, whey, and soy in terms of protein quality,” says Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, author of The 150 Most Effective Ways to Boost Your Energy (Fair Winds, 2008). Nutrient-rich eggs contain all nine essential amino acids (called essential because your body can’t make them). Just don’t ditch the yolk, which contains choline, a nutrient in the B vitamin family shown to be critical for memory and thought.
On your plate
Cut a hard-boiled egg into your lunch salad; scramble eggs with sautéed vegetables; or crack two eggs into an oversized, lightly oiled mug, add some reduced-fat cheese, microwave for 30 seconds (check for doneness and continue cooking in 10-second intervals, if necessary), and then sandwich the “omelet” between whole-grain bread slices.
The protein-calcium combination in yogurt not only helps you focus, but it also helps you stay strong by maintaining muscle mass and may even help with weight loss. More nutrient-packed than milk, yogurt boasts higher concentrations of protein, calcium, and vitamin D. It’s also a good source of potassium, phosphorus, zinc, and healthful bacteria called probiotics. “When you’re tired, your immune system is more vulnerable,” says Gerbstadt. “Probiotics help boost your immune system so you’re able to fight off illnesses that might really knock you out.”
On your plate
Keep plain yogurt in the office refrigerator rather than flavored yogurts, which are often loaded with energy-zapping sugar. To add flavor, stir in a teaspoon of honey, peanut butter, or cocoa powder. Greek yogurt is richer and more nutrient-dense than traditional yogurt, though higher in calories. Mix with sliced cucumbers, chopped mint, and a dash of lemon for a refreshing dip for raw veggies.
Sipping caffeinated tea throughout the day can help you think more clearly, according to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition; it can also stave off age-related dementia. When paired with caffeine, L-theanine (a unique amino acid in tea) increases alertness, reaction time, and memory.
In your cup
Keep an electric kettle plugged in at work, and sip oolong, white, green, and black teas throughout the day.
In your purse: almonds
Protein and fiber in almonds can help you power through the afternoon. They’re loaded with calcium, zinc, vitamin E, and immune-boosting alpha-linolenic acid (a precursor to omega-3s), all of which promote optimal brain function.
In the car: water
Dehydration can sap your stamina and cloud your thinking. In fact, experts claim that even 2 percent dehydration interferes with performance. You should drink enough water so that your urine is clear or light yellow. For most people, that’s 8–10 glasses a day.
In the office fridge: raw veggies and hummus
High in fiber, protein, and alpha-linolenic acid, hummus is the perfect snack to have on hand. It’s also a good source of iron, which is critical during an afternoon energy slump (low iron can translate to low energy). Pair it with some raw vegetables for a crunchy, tasty treat.
At your desk: whole fruit,especially apples
Apples are high in fiber and loaded with disease-fighting antioxidants. What’s more, apples contain boron, a mineral that reportedly keeps college sophomores awake during class.
Source: Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS