Whether you’re trying to lose weight or maintain it, it’s important to know what foods give you energy. That way you can get the most bang for your buck by consuming calories that power you up instead of making you tired. Even better is that the foods that give you energy are the same foods that keep you full. When you’re full, you don’t overeat or binge on empty calories, which is essential in losing weight fast and maintaining it.
Up next we’re going to tell you everything you need to know about how to eat a diet for energy. It’s actually not that complicated. There are a wide variety of foods and drinks that are just brimming with good, sustainable energy. If you embrace the simple ideas provided next, you’ll find yourself powering through your mornings, afternoons and right into the evening. Let’s get into it.
How Does Food Turn Into Fuel?
Although all foods give you energy in the form of calories, different types of food give you different kinds of fuel. Foods come in the form of three macronutrients called protein, carbohydrates and fats, which all provide us with energy.
Carbohydrates help fuel the body and brain, protect our muscles and feed the bacteria in our guts. Proteins repair tissue, build muscle and help deliver oxygen to your body and more. Fats are also essential as they provide energy and build energy reserves.
The carbohydrates are broken down into glucose (sugars), the fats are broken down into fatty acids while protein is broken down into amino acids. After they are broken into these forms, the body can transfer energy from them to be used in our cells.
How Carbohydrates Work
There are two kinds of carbs, and one of them is the good kind. Simple carbohydrates break down super fast and give you short bursts of energy followed by energy slumps. Complex carbs take longer to break down so they end up giving you energy for long periods, which makes them the good kind of carbs.
Whether they are complex or simple, carbohydrates break down into glucose and enter your bloodstream. However, your body can’t simply use glucose for energy. Instead, in a process called cellular respiration, energy from glucose is transferred to a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is what your cells use to power up your body and help you do things like move your muscles to walk down the street.
Simple Carbs Vs Complex Carbs
Both simple carbs and complex carbs send glucose into the bloodstream, however simple carbs do the sending super fast. That super-fast glucose released into your bloodstream causes your blood sugar to increase quickly and also gives you a spike in energy. That spike in energy is usually followed by a crash. On the other hand, complex carbs supply glucose gradually, which provides a steady stream of energy for your day.
Simple carbs have little to no fiber, are not filling and digest too quickly. They are often found in heavily processed foods like white bread, white rice, white pasta, sugary breakfast cereals, candy and fruit juice. Simple carbs are also found in refined grains with added sugars like donuts, cookies, and other snack foods.
Conversely, complex carbs are rich in fiber, require time to digest and are filling. Some examples of complex carbohydrates include whole grains, beans and legumes and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes.
If you are eating for energy, make sure to include lots of complex carbs. An example of a good complex carb lunch can include sweet potato, lentils, and a leafy green salad with avocado slices. A poor energy lunch choice would be a refined carb-rich lunch of white pasta with tomato sauce and garlic bread.
How Caffeine Impacts Your Energy Levels
Caffeine makes you feel like you’ve got more energy than you do. It is a natural stimulant most commonly found in tea, coffee, and the cacao plant. Caffeine works by stimulating the brain and central nervous system. It blocks a molecule called adenosine which would normally make you feel tired. It also triggers the release of chemicals like dopamine and adrenaline, which make you feel happy and energized.
The USDA says two to four cups of coffee are safe for most adults (less for pregnant women). However, too much caffeine consumption can cause you to feel periods of high energy followed by energy slumps when the caffeine wears off. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, just a cup or two of caffeine can cause jitters.
Caffeine can be a good pick-me-up but it is not a substitute for a diet full of energy-giving foods.
How Does The Glycemic Index Relate To Energy
The Glycemic Index (GI) measures how quickly carbohydrates in a food cause blood sugar levels to rise after eating. The faster your blood sugar rises, the faster you’re going to feel a hit of energy. That also means the faster you’re going to feel an energy crash.
The GI rating system ranges between 1 and 100 with 100 meaning you are consuming a high GI food. High GI foods can cause your blood sugar levels to skyrocket, which can lead to increased tiredness, moodiness, poor focus and, in the long-term, weight gain.
Low GI foods, on the other hand, digest and absorb more slowly and cause a gradual rise in blood sugar. These foods keep you fuller longer, reduce sugar cravings, improve focus and help to maintain a healthy weight.
So if you want to have sustained energy throughout the day, include low glycemic foods in your diet for more energy.
Low Glycemic Foods
- Rolled oats
- Most Fruit
- Non-starchy Vegetables
High Glycemic Foods
- White bread
- Russet potatoes
- White Rice
- Instant Noodles
What Foods Should You Eat To Give You Energy?
Foods rich in complex carbohydrates, protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals are what to eat for energy.
In particular, focus on filling foods that are going to release energy slowly. These types of foods are typically made up of protein and complex carbs that are fiber-rich. You can also include some healthy fats into the mix for slow-releasing energy.
Enjoy a combination of these foods for best results:
- Leafy Greens
- Sweet Potatoes
- Whole Grains
- Citrus fruits
- Low-fat dairy
How Changing Your Eating Schedule Can Impact Energy
Changing your eating schedule so that you have meals planned out at regular intervals will give you sustained energy all day. Skipping meals or waiting too long between meals can cause low energy levels and a slow down in your metabolism. It is a good idea to eat every three to four hours to fuel a healthy metabolism.
Eating at regular intervals ensures your metabolism breaks down food at the same speed at all of your meals. A scheduled eating regimen also helps to prevent cravings and hunger that lead to unhealthy snacking and overeating.
You wouldn’t drive your car on empty so why would you drive your body on empty in the morning? After 8 hours of sleep, the body needs energy in the form of food and drink to get going. Sure, a cup of coffee can give you that caffeine buzz to make your brain think you’re energized, but what you need is breakfast.
Skipping breakfast can lead to low energy levels in the morning and a ravenous appetite at lunch. It can also lead to hunger and cravings for sugary things that will spike your blood sugar levels and then cause an energy crash.
Instead, opt for a breakfast that includes protein and some complex carbs and healthy fats for an energetic morning.
Energizing Breakfast Ideas
- Scrambled eggs with leafy greens and avocado slices
- Steel-cut oats with nuts and milk
- Greek yogurt with berries, nuts, and low-sugar granola
- Whole grain toast with almond butter and banana slices and a hard-boiled egg
- Tofu Scramble with veggies
- Chickpea avocado toast with tomato slices
Eat At Regular Intervals
When you eat at regular intervals, you provide your body with a steady stream of energy throughout the day. That means you don’t bombard your body with a whole bunch of calories all at once. It also means you don’t wait so long for food that your body starts to think it’s going to starve
It is a good idea to eat every 3 - 4 hours during your day, you can include a healthy snack in between that window. This will give you the steady supply of energy you need. Check out this sample eating schedule for eating at regular intervals.
Regular Interval Eating
7:00 a.m. Breakfast
9:30 a.m. Snack
12:00 p.m. Lunch
3:00 p.m. Snack
6:00 p.m. Dinner
Eat 5 Portions Of Fruit And Vegetables
Experts recommend eating at a minimum of five servings of fruits and vegetables per day for overall health and longevity. Including 1-2 servings of vegetables and fruits with each meal adds fiber-rich carbohydrates to keep your energy levels up.
Not all fruits and vegetables are created equal however so focus on green leafy vegetables like spinach, lettuce and kale. Also focus on fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, berries and carrots. Vegetables like sweet potatoes and beets are also excellent choices as they are fiber-rich and nutrient-dense.
Ways To Get More Fruit And Vegetables
- Eat fruits and veggies with nut butter for a snack
- Buy prewashed salads and prechopped vegetables that require little to no preparation
- Add vegetables to your fruit smoothies
- Sneak veggies into soups and stews
Incorporate Starchy Carbohydrates Into Your Diet
Starches are complex carbohydrates, which means they are a great source of steady energy. They also keep you full so you’re not tempted to eat foods that are high in sugars, which tend to spike your energy levels and then cause you to crash. Some starches are better than others, the higher GI rating a starch has, the worse it will be for your energy levels.
Good Sources Of Starches
- Sweet Potatoes
- Winter squash
- Whole grains
Water plays a major role in every organ in your body, but it’s easy to take for granted. Even slight dehydration can quickly sap energy levels which can make you feel sleepy and have you reaching for caffeinated beverages. This is because dehydration impacts the flow of oxygen to the brain and causes your heart to work harder to pump oxygen to all your bodily organs, making you more tired and less alert.
Everyone has differing hydration needs depending on body size, activity level, and other factors like climate location and health factors, but in general, if you wait until you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated. On average, men should aim for 125 ounces per day of water and women for 90 ounces per day.
The good news is that your fluid intake doesn’t only come from water, but also from foods with a high water content like cucumbers, watermelon, strawberries, celery and cauliflower.
Eat Iron-Rich Foods
Your body needs iron to convert your food into energy. Above we talked about cellular respiration, the process in which the energy from your food is transferred into ATP, which your body then uses as fuel. For this process to take place, you need iron.
Iron is necessary to make hemoglobin, which is a part of red blood cells that carry oxygen to the rest of your body. This allows the body to perform all sorts of functions including cellular respiration. When you don’t have enough iron, you are anemic. When you become anemic, you also become tired and even fatigued.
So, clearly eating iron-rich foods should be at the top of your list if you’re trying to figure out how to eat for energy.
- Green Leafy Vegetables
- Red Meat
- Dried Fruit
- Pumpkin Seeds
Cut Down On Your Sugar Intake
Foods and drinks high in sugar give you a burst of energy and then leave you more tired than before you consumed the sugar. If you want a steady source of energy, then you need to replace simple sugars with complex carbs, protein and some healthy fats.
Sugar is added to tons of foods, especially heavily processed foods like donuts and cakes as well as salad dressings and sugary breakfast cereals. Try to replace those foods with more natural products like fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean proteins.
How To Kick Off Your Energy Boosting Diet
Your best bet for an energizing diet without energy crashes is a wholesome diet composed of fiber-rich complex carbohydrates paired with lean protein, fruits and vegetables and healthy fats. In addition to that, be sure to hydrate, avoid excessive caffeine and limit processed foods.
The best way to tackle all of the above is a little bit at a time. New habits take time to form so it’s best to introduce one or two habits at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed. You could start with introducing a high-energy breakfast four times a week along with a few glasses of water.
The following week you can add high-energy lunches, the week after high-energy dinners. Build on the successes of your week before and don’t make too many drastic changes too fast or else they won’t stick. Just remember that the name of the game is high energy meals and they should include protein and fiber-rich carbs as well as fruits, veggies and some healthy fats.
In addition to adjusting your fuel, you can also boost your energy levels by exercising, getting enough sleep, managing stress and getting daily sunlight. Take the Fitmate quiz to find out how a health coach can help you start your new plan.
Author Alon Laniado is the founder of Fitmate Coach and certified in Nutrition with Stanford University School of Medicine and with Precision Nutrition. He is a certified Health & Wellness Coach and Personal Trainer with the American Council on Exercise. Alon has helped thousands of clients lose weight and is on a mission to help more people benefit from weight-loss coaches by making the service more affordable and accessible using technology.
How Do We Use Food For Energy?
All food contains energy in it and our body extracts that energy from the food for its use. Our food comes in the form of three macronutrients called protein, fat and carbohydrates. Your body starts turning these macros into energy the second you put them in your mouth.
Your chewed-up food goes into your stomach where it gets broken down into its smallest form. The carbohydrates convert to glucose; fats break down into fatty acids and proteins are divided into amino acids. The body uses glucose, fatty acids and protein in different ways in the body. However, to use any of those things as energy, they need to be metabolized into a molecule called ATP. When the food energy is transferred into ATP, our cells can use it to provide energy to our bodies.
What Food Should I Eat For Energy When I'm Sick?
If you are feeling under the weather, certain foods may give you energy and help you to recover sooner. Most importantly you want to hydrate and do so with foods and fluids that also contain nutrients. Chicken soup is an easy-to-eat source of vitamins, minerals, protein, fluids and electrolytes.
On the drinks end, coconut water is a great beverage to drink when you are sick as it is high in hydrating electrolytes. Bananas, oatmeal and yogurt are also good choices and will provide complex fiber-rich carbs for energy as well as protein for satiety
What Foods Give You Quick Energy?
While a lot of foods can give you quick energy, the best ones are those that contain complex carbohydrates that are high in fiber as well as protein. Try out our five fave foods for quick energy.
One teaspoon of peanut butter is all you need for a quick burst of energy. Peanut butter contains a healthy dose of protein, fiber as well as healthy fat. That means you not only get a quick dose of energy, but also one that’ll last for a while.
The perfect grab-n-go snack, bananas fall into the complex carb category thanks to their mix of glucose and lots of fiber. They are a quick and easy source of energy you can grab on the go. They also have a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals like potassium.
Greek yogurt contains simple carbs that provide instant energy, but it also contains protein. That means you will get that energy you need quickly, but the protein is going to take time to break down, which is going to make you feel full and avoid an energy slump.
You can call it the emperor of high-energy foods, edamame is made up of carbohydrates, fiber and iron. That trifecta makes for a powerhouse combination that’ll leave you satiated and energized for hours.
A humble bowl of oatmeal can make for the perfect energy-boosting breakfast or a pre-workout snack. It is a complex carb full of fiber and protein that is going to keep your belly and energy stores full. You can dress it up with fruits for an extra energy, vitamin and mineral kick.
What Can I Drink For Energy?
Water is an excellent choice when you’re looking for a drink that’ll give you energy. That’s because water helps with oxygen circulation in the body. If you’ve ever bee dehydrated, you know how tired and sleepy you feel when your body isn’t getting enough water. Tossing back a glass of water instantly gets the oxygen flowing and helps you feel alert.
There are few drinks as popular for their energy-boosting qualities as coffee and it’s for good reason. Coffee contains caffeine which inhibits the production of chemicals that make you feel tired and boosts the production of adrenaline, which gives you instant energy.
While some people can drink quite a few cups of java a day, others can feel jittery with just one. If you’re one of those people or just want to avoid drinking too much coffee, you can try one of the following alternatives.
- Matcha tea: Whilst coffee gives you an immediate energy boost, matcha does so at a slower rate giving you a more even boost. Matcha is also rich in l-theanine, an amino acid that increases alertness while reducing fatigue.
- Other teas: Other teas with caffeine that provide a slower energy boost include chai tea, yerba mate, green tea, black teas and kombucha.
- You may want to skip the caffeine entirely and opt for antioxidant-rich rooibos tea or lemon water. Both of these can give you a natural energy boost by keeping you adequately hydrated.