How Can I Eat to Boost My Energy?

Find energy naturally through foods and good habits.

Photo: Hola Illustration / Getty Images

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We humans, we’re creatures of habit. Which means that time changes—be it Daylight Saving or traveling to a different part of the country—can leave us feeling sluggish.

Not surprisingly, sleep and exercise can help right the ship, but so can your diet. Dr. Neal Barnard, MD, FACC, explains that if you were to view glycogen (our muscles’ energy source) under a powerful microscope, it would look like a long, branching string of beads. Each “bead” is a molecule of glucose, or simple sugar. Marathoners eat lots of rice, bread, pasta, and other starchy foods, because when starches are digested, they release glucose that the body stores in the muscles and liver, like extra batteries.

“My two favorite endurance athletes are Brendan Brazier and Scott Jurek. Most people would be proud to have run a marathon,” Barnard says.  “Brazier leads the pack in Ironman triathlons and 50-kilometer ultramarathons, and is as particular about food as a Formula One driver is about racing fuel.” Brazier’s diet is loaded with healthful carbohydrates. Barnard goes on to explain that early in his racing career, Brazier found that animal products slowed his recovery after exercise. His energy returns quickly with a totally vegan diet, and he’s ready to compete again.

And perhaps no one has more energy than Scott Jurek. In 1999, Jurek entered the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run. He and 334 other runners set off running, and not only did Jurek win that race —he won the race every year for the next six years, setting the course record in 2004 at 15:36:27. Like Brendan, explains Barnard, Jurek leaves animal products off the menu, and sticks to a high-carb, vegan menu instead.

If the marathoners’ menu—rice, bread, pasta, and other starchy foods—sounds like a dream come true, it’s important to remember that not all carbs are equal. For energy, you want carbohydrates with staying power and consulting the Glycemic Index Chart can help guide the way.

Foods that score high on the index, such as sugar, white and wheat breads, white potatoes, and most cold cereals, digest too rapidly and cause your blood sugar to spike. Then, as your blood sugar falls, your energy flags and cravings kick in. Another reason to avoid high-glycemic-index foods? They tend to boost serotonin in the brain, which can make you sleepy.

But low glycemic-index foods have a much gentler effect on blood sugar, helping stabilize energy without highs and lows. Some good choices are oatmeal, beans, rye or pumpernickel bread, pasta (yes, even if it’s made of white flour, it has a low glycemic index), yams, and sweet potatoes.

Foods That Drag You Down

In addition to sugary and high glycemic-index foods, fatty foods are also problematic. “You know the slowdown that many people experience after a meal, especially after huge holiday dinners loaded with meat, cheese, and gravy? It turns out that animal fats——and any sort of saturated fats——make the blood more viscous, or “thicker,” Barnard says. “Your blood becomes more like oil and less like water. I suspect that is the main reason many people feel tired after heavy meals, and it’s also why so many people who go vegan notice that their energy increases.”

Coffee and energy drinks might provide short-term pep, but the main function of drinking caffeinated beverages every morning is to combat the withdrawal that comes from having had them the day before. “Caffeine withdrawal reduces alertness and mental clarity, and causes headaches,” Barnard explains. “A morning cup of coffee simply hoists you temporarily out of your withdrawal.”

Energy drinks such as Red Bull combine caffeine (about the same amount as in a small cup of coffee) with the amino acid taurine and other additives to increase alertness and boost athletic performance. Whether its effects are caused by caffeine or by its other ingredients are not yet clear, but many people report a withdrawal syndrome very much like caffeine.

For sustained energy that doesn’t leave you dragging, the bottom line is simple: Get a good night’s sleep, exercise regularly, eat plenty of healthful complex carbs and plant-based protein, and skip the sugar, fatty foods, and caffeine. After that, you should have energy to burn.

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