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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, sweet potatoes, squash, and carrots—and stick with whole-wheat (rather than white) breads. Avoid sweets, which cause blood sugar to jump and fall.
Don’t stop there. Consider also your protein and fiber sources, the effects of caffeine, and how often and when you eat meals.
Got Protein? Got Fiber?
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.
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.
Energy-Boosting Foods: Tips on Caffeine, Meal Frequency
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 at Mealtimes
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.
- Sliced apples with a spoonful of all-natural peanut butter.
- Opt for lean poultry, seafood, lean pork or meats in combination with dark leafy greens (collard greens, broccoli, spinach), orange and red vegetables (carrots, peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, winter squash), and brown rice or sweet potato.
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.
See also the following University Health News posts:
- “High-Energy Diet: 5 Ways to Fuel Your Body“
- “Plant-Based Diets: Healthier Eating and a Longer Life Span“
- “Nitrates in Food: The Best Fuel for Physical Activity?“
- “Healthy Dinner Options: Ideas for All Tastes“
It’s not necessarily about how much you bite off; it’s about how much you chew. That’s was one memorable result from a well-publicized panel discussion at the Food Technologists (IFT) Annual Meeting & Food Expo in 2013. “Particle size has bioaccessibility of the energy of the food” being consumed, said Dr. Richard Mattes (CQ), professor of foods and nutrition at Purdue University. “The more you chew, the less is lost and more is retained in the body.”
We all have our own chewing habits, and although they’re difficult to change, they’re worth considering when making energy food choices, Mattes noted. He cited a study in which subjects chewed almonds 10 times, 25 times, or 40 times, with their fecal fat and energy lost by the number of chews being measured. With fewer chews, the research showed, the larger particles were eliminated by the body. With more chews, the smaller particles were more readily absorbed into the system.
“If the goal is to include food that is enjoyable and contribute protein, a whole almond is probably the way you want to go,” Mattes said. “If you’re interested in maximizing vitamin E intake, chopped almonds, almond butter, or almond oil may be a better choice.”
Originally posted in 2016 and regularly updated.