Get a better boost with the right nutrition
Just like you can’t drive a car without fuel, your body needs fuel to function. Instead of gasoline, however, what gives us energy is certain nutrients from the diet. Nutrients can give us energy either as a substrate converted to ATP in our cells or by otherwise contributing to ATP production. Just like gasoline, the quality of the food you eat will have an effect on the performance of your “vehicle”.
If you’d like to know what to eat for energy, and which foods or nutrients you should avoid when more energy is the goal, read on.
What gives us energy?
The answer to this question is going to vary depending on your concept of “energy”. If you are curious about the literal fuel your body needs to function, the answer is glucose (with caveats). If you want to know how to increase your energy levels, that answer is slightly more convoluted.
In very literal terms, glucose is what gives us energy. The simple, natural sugar molecule found in all fruits, vegetables, and grains, is the body’s preferred source of fuel for energy production. When absorbed by cells, mitochondria turn glucose into ATP: the cell’s energy molecule.
Typically, the more work a tissue has to do (think muscle tissue vs fat tissue) the more mitochondria are present, the more glucose is being absorbed, and the more ATP is being made.
When no glucose is available, the body does have ways to make ATP from other sources. These include stored glucose (glycogen), fatty acids, or ketones. However, none of these energy sources are as efficient as glucose and all require energy to break down . If your goal is more energy, maintaining steady, balanced glucose levels is best.
Of course, the answer to feeling energetic is not: eat more sugar. In fact, eating great quantities of sugar all at once or too often throughout the day can do serious, lasting damage to your body .
To keep energy levels consistent, create a slow and steady absorption of glucose by consuming variably digestible foods (we’ll come back to this). You must also consistently provide your body with the machinery (vitamins, minerals, and amino acids) it needs to keep turning glucose into energy, and metabolize that energy once created.
Conversion of fuel
Aside from glucose, our bodies also need minerals, vitamins, protein, and even a little bit of fat. Without enough of each, we can never function to our full potential.
When we think of dietary protein, we may think of athletes, but everybody needs to eat protein! Athletes typically need to consume a higher protein diet than the average human, as the material to build new muscle has to come from somewhere. That material is dietary amino acids (found in protein).
But protein is important for so many things outside of muscle building. When humans eat protein, the body breaks it down into amino acid building blocks that can be reconstructed into new cells and cell parts, hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters, and other physical components of the body. Yes, amino acids are important for feeling energized during the day.
Vitamins are required for certain biological processes to function efficiently. For example, the creation or activity of those hormones, neurotransmitters, and enzymes made of proteins, also require the presence of specific vitamins in minimum abundances. Other vitamins must be present for the absorption of nutrients from the diet.
Certain vitamins are more important than others when it comes to their proximity to energy metabolism, but any deficiency can take a toll on your energy levels.
Minerals, too, contribute to our physical structures (i.e. bone), but they are also essential for other important reasons. The balance of minerals in cells and in circulation regulates everything from hydration to cell signaling, brain function, detoxification systems, and blood pressure . If you thought minerals had nothing to do with your energy level…think again.
Eat for Energy
Ok, so you read you need vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, and “variably digestible glucose sources”. But, what does that mean? Which ones? What food should you eat for energy?
What to eat
While we need glucose, we want to get it from complex carbohydrates instead of simple ones. When we eat simple carbs like white flour and sugar, it causes a blood sugar spike and crash, not sustained, stable energy.
When we eat whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, some glucose is released immediately, thanks to food prep and chewing (physical/manual digestion), but more is released slowly over time as the more complex food structures and proteins are broken down by stomach acid and other enzymes (chemical digestion).
B vitamins (B-12 especially) are some of the most important when it comes to powering the mitochondria . Unfortunately, many healthy eaters don’t get enough B vitamins, because they are most abundant in animal protein sources (meat and dairy). A B-complex supplement in the morning is a great way to fill any nutritional gaps, regardless of your diet.
Iron is important for energy too . Even borderline anemia can drain energy levels, and vitamin C helps the body absorb iron from our food. Eating bright vegetables like bell peppers, or citrus fruits, with animal protein and dark, leafy greens can help you keep your iron levels healthy.
While saturated fat should stay on the “avoid” list, a little bit of healthy fat is important. Fat helps us stay full longer, allows for the absorption of some important vitamins, and contributes to cell membranes and neuronal integrity. Find healthy fats in fruits like bananas and avocados, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Water is essential for digestion, absorption, and activity of nutrients. While juices and sports drinks contain water, they will also contribute to a rush and crash like all sugar products. Caffeinated coffee may support your energy levels, but it is also dehydrating . Try chasing every cup of coffee with an extra glass of water.
How much to eat
Portion control and the timing of a meal is also important for a related reason. Energy is sent where it is most needed. Because it requires energy to digest food, the more you eat, the more energy your digestive system needs to break it down. Eat too much and you’ll have less available energy for activities like prepping for your important work pitch or your work out.
Think about the term “food coma”. You don’t get a food coma from a handful of almonds or having a garden salad with grilled chicken, right? When we eat a giant portion, not only do we feel physically uncomfortable, our digestive system has to work overtime to get enzymes and stomach acid and bile moving through the food we’ve consumed. It can be exhausting!
An easy rule of thumb here is to wait until you feel hungry to eat, and when you’re hungry serve yourself a small portion. Then, wait 20 minutes before serving any more. It takes about that amount of time for the satiation signals from a full belly to register in your brain . If you eat too fast, you might eat more than you needed to. Go slow and you may find you’re satisfied by less food than you thought.
When to eat
Eat breakfast! Unless you have a medical reason (they do exist!) for intermittent fasting, start your day with a small-but-satisfying balance of complex carbs, protein, and healthy fat. Eggs in a whole wheat tortilla with avocado, or oatmeal with fruit and nut butter are examples of filling breakfasts that provide lasting energy.
If you just aren’t hungry when you wake up, make yourself a superfood smoothie and sip it as you move through your morning. Metabolic Detox Complete is a delicious meal replacement powder that can be blended into smoothies. It also contains a full-spectrum multivitamin, right in the mix.
You’ve got to eat something to provide your cells with fuel for energy after the fast of sleeping. Also, by not waiting until you feel queasy from hunger, you are less likely to reach for something unhealthy out of desperation.
Speaking of which, eat throughout the day, but don’t eat constantly all day. Try for a small meal or snack every 3 to 4 hours. This is enough time in between meals to use your energy for activities other than digestion, but still provides enough input for consistent energy output.
Stop eating with time to spare before bed. If you fall asleep while the digestive system is still working hard, your body isn’t truly at rest. As you digest and absorb energy-promoting nutrition, you may find yourself unable to stay asleep or wake feeling tired in the morning.
What is the best supplement for energy?
You can’t beat starting your day with a B-complex vitamin supplement when it comes to energy. B-12 specifically, is both great for energy support, and likely to be lacking in your diet if you eat a mostly plant-based diet or are over 50. This is because B-12 is found most abundantly in animal products. Our bodies stop producing as much stomach acid and protease/digestive enzymes as we age, so it is harder to break down some foods well enough to absorb the B-12 from within.
A B-complex, as opposed to B-12 alone, is great because the B vitamins tend to work as a team .
Another powerful nutrient for energy-making is coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10; ubiquinone). CoQ10 is a fat-soluble, vitamin-like nutrient found naturally in nearly every cell of the body. The more energy a cell typically needs or uses, the higher concentration of CoQ10 you are likely to find. Unfortunately, this is yet another nutrient whose production declines naturally as we age.
CoQ10’s roles in the cell are related to energy metabolism and antioxidant activity. This means CoQ10 prevents and repairs cellular damage while also contributing to the conversion of glucose to ATP. When we supplement CoQ10, we replenish the lack of endogenous CoQ10, restoring cells’ energy production and antioxidant activities.
L-Arginine is an amino acid that can support energy production. As an important precursor for nitric oxide (NO), arginine supports the oxidation of energy substrates, both fatty acids and glucose. L-Arginine supplements are not only supportive of a healthy cardiovascular system, they also complement exercise for weight management. Arginine supplements may encourage the body’s use of excess energy to favor muscle-building over fat synthesis .
- Tirone, Thomas A., and F. Charles Brunicardi. “Overview of glucose regulation.” World journal of surgery 25.4 (2001): 461.
- Palacios, Orsolya M., Melvyn Kramer, and Kevin C. Maki. “Diet and prevention of type 2 diabetes mellitus: beyond weight loss and exercise.” Expert review of endocrinology & metabolism 14.1 (2019): 1-12.
- Campbell, J. D. “Lifestyle, minerals and health.” Medical hypotheses 57.5 (2001): 521-531.
- Schellack, Gustav, Pamela Harirari, and Natalie Schellack. “B-complex vitamin deficiency and supplementation.” SA Pharmaceutical Journal 83.4 (2016): 14-19.
- McKay, Alannah KA, et al. “Iron metabolism: Interactions with energy and carbohydrate availability.” Nutrients 12.12 (2020): 3692.
- Zavvos, Athanasios, et al. “The Effect of Caffeine Intake on Body Fluids Replacement After Exercise-Induced Dehydration.” Nutrition Today 55.6 (2020): 288-293.
- Zelman, Kathleen. “Slow Down, You Eat Too Fast: Eat less and enjoy it more with mindful eating”. Web MD. 2004. https://www.webmd.com/diet/obesity/features/slow-down-you-eat-too-fast#:~:text=It%20takes%20approximately%2020%20minutes,full%20translates%20into%20eating%20less
- Jobgen, Wenjuan, et al. “Dietary L-arginine supplementation reduces white fat gain and enhances skeletal muscle and brown fat masses in diet-induced obese rats.” The Journal of nutrition (2008): jn-108.