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Never mind gimmicky energy drinks and protein concoctions claiming to infuse your body with bursts of energy. Instead, make sure your pantry and refrigerator are filled with the right kinds of foods—foods that give energy naturally.
In considering energy-boosting foods, start with smart carbohydrates. Carbs have been given a bad rap because, essentially, they’re made up of sugar molecules. But they’re an important source of energy and also are known to elevate mood, thanks to the chemical serotonin. Choose the “right” carbs—whole grains like whole-grain cereal, brown rice, potatoes, squash, and carrots—and stick with whole-wheat (rather than white) breads. Avoid sweets, which cause blood sugar to jump and fall.
Additionally, steer toward protein-rich nuts and seeds. Almonds, Brazil nuts, and cashews are steeped in the mineral magnesium, which converts sugar into energy; peanuts, hazelnuts, and walnuts also work as magnesium sources. Brazil nuts, by the way, also contain selenium, a natural mood booster (although too much selenium, experts say, can be harmful). Pumpkin seeds and squash seeds also work as energy-boosting foods.
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Look to lean beef along with lean pork and skinless turkey and chicken give your body protein and tyrosine. Tyrosine is known to enhance the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, brain chemicals that can help you feel energized and alert. Fish is another energy-boosting food. Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can contribute to good heart health.
Make sure you give your body enough fiber as well. Found in vegetables (dark leafy greens) as well as whole grains and beans, fiber helps steady your energy level throughout the day. Whole fruits also provide fiber, among other benefits.
Standbys in the energy-boosting arena include coffee, tea, and chocolate, all of which give us caffeine. While caffeine gives us that surge of energy we need every morning (and beyond), be careful not to overdo it. Too much caffeine can backfire by keeping you awake at night and robbing you of necessary sleep.
Another tip experts offer: Rather than three classic “large” meals, eat small meals and give yourself healthy snacks every three to four hours. Stick with the options mentioned above—nuts, whole fruits, whole vegetables, carbs—rather than sweets and sugars. This tactic will keep your energy level steady throughout the day.
Energy-Boosting Foods: Focus on These
To fuel your energy level over the course of a day, consider diving into these types of food combinations:
- Whole grain bagel or toast with cheese or peanut butter.
- High-fiber cereal or yogurt with fruits (banana or apple slices, blueberries, and strawberries all work).
- Oatmeal with raisins.
- Eggs, hard-boiled or scrambled, with fruit.
- And don’t chug your coffee; the caffeine is said to peak in your bloodstream quickly if you down a large one right away (vs. taking your time).
- Protein-rich salad featuring grilled chicken and/or chickpeas or soybeans and walnuts on top of dark-leaf greens, broccoli, and peppers.
- Baked potato with sour cream.
- Grilled chicken or tuna on whole-wheat bread with dark-leaf greens.
- Trail mix; combine raisins with almonds, cashews, and/or walnuts, squash or pumpkin seeds, Cheerios or Chex mix, and whole-grain pretzels for a pick-me-up snack.
- Fruit salad featuring melons, bananas, blackberries, strawberries, and grapes.
- Yogurt topped with berries.
- Opt for lean poultry, seafood, lean pork or meats in combination with dark leafy greens (collard greens, broccoli, spinach) and/or orange and red vegetables (carrots, peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, winter squash).
For further reading on energy-boosting foods, visit the National Institutes of Health’s page on senior health and the United States Department of Agriculture’s ChooseMyPlate.gov site.
Originally posted in April 2016 and updated.