Eating These 10 Foods Can Help Boost Your Energy Levels
Whatever your schedule might look like, without eating a well-balanced diet, you may feel like you're seriously lacking in the energy department. While a sluggish feeling might leave you reaching for a processed energy drink or sugar-laden snack, ask any nutritionist and they'll tell you that you should instead focus your attention on energy-boosting whole foods and, of course, lots of water. "It all starts with proper hydration," says Elizabeth Somer, a registered dietician and medical advisory board member at Persona Nutrition. "As a general rule, women need 50 to 60 ounces of fluids per day, and men need 60 to 80."
Beyond hydration, registered dietician Mia Syn says to look towards foods that contain good-for-you carbohydrates and natural sources of caffeine. "Foods that contain carbohydrates give us energy," she explains. "Carbohydrates convert to glucose which is our cell's preferred energy source." The best carbohydrate sources contain fiber, she says, as they'll give you sustained energy without the spikes and dips. However, not all carbohydrates and caffeine sources were created equal, which is why we're sharing a list of the 10 most nourishing, energy-boosting foods worth adding to your diet.
Dark Leafy Greens
According to clinical nutritionist and Freshly's Director of Nutrition Brooke Scheller, dark leafy greens (think spinach, kale, and collard greens) not only provide many of the B vitamins that are critical for energy and serotonin production, but also offer a whole host of other vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals to help restore energy and boost productivity. As a general rule of thumb, Somer says you should aim for 400 micrograms a day, or the amount of folate in one-and-a-half cups of sautéed spinach.
Beets help increase nitric oxide production, which increases blood flow to the brain, says Scheller. "This means sharper thinking and more productivity," she explains. "Beets for breakfast, anyone? Otherwise, you can make a salad of leafy greens, beets, goat cheese, and apples for the ultimate power meal."
Scheller reminds us that apples are high in fiber and contain more moderate levels of sugar than some other fruits, which makes for a more balanced release of energy. "Pair an apple with a few shakes of cinnamon (which also helps with blood sugar) or even a few nuts or a scoop of nut butter to help keep you feeling full and focused for longer," she suggests.
"Legumes, such as black beans, are one of Mother Nature's best sources of iron," Somer explains. "As a component of hemoglobin in the blood, iron is the key oxygen-carrier in the body. When iron levels drop, the tissues are oxygen-starved, resulting in fatigue, poor concentration, and disturbed sleep." Somer says that this is especially important for children, teenage girls, and childbearing-age women to keep in mind, as they are most at risk for iron deficiency. "Beans also help keep your mood on an even keel," she adds. "They are almost fat-free but high in protein, water, and fiber—the magic combo for feeling full and satisfied on few calories. They also are very low on the glycemic index, so they help regulate blood sugar, as well as appetite."
Fun fact: According to Scheller, two-thirds of your brain is made from fat, with a high percentage of those fats being omega-3s. "Fats help to absorb important nutrients, like vitamins A and D, and also provide the essentials needed for hormone production (this also includes the hormones that help us feel alert and awake)," she says, noting that fats (along with protein) also help to stabilize and balance energy and blood sugar levels to keep us full and focused for longer. The trick is to eat healthy fats, like those found in fatty salmon, mackerel, walnuts, chia seeds, and a handful of other foods. "I love making a salad with wild canned salmon, mixing it with a bit of olive oil and spices, and tossing it into butter lettuce or romaine boats for a quick snack or a light lunch," Scheller says.
Eve Persak, the resident nutritionist for COMO Group Hotels and Resorts, says that pumpkin seeds (or any seed type, for that matter) should not be nutritionally underestimated. "Pumpkin and sunflower seeds are perfect for promoting improved energy," she explains. "A single serving packs quite an energetic punch—two grams of fiber, almost nine grams of protein, and 14 grams of beneficial oils (omega-3 and monounsaturated). To boot, they're a great combination of zinc (20%DV) and most of all, magnesium (40%)."
And don't forget that quinoa is also technically a seed. According to Persak, quinoa is a mealtime staple when you want to boost energy levels since it's a source of complete plant-based protein, as well as fiber. "This offers far more prolonged, sustained energy delivery than any refined grains," she notes. "Quinoa is also gluten-free, so it sits [well with] sensitive digestive systems."
Yes, the guac is extra—extra energizing, that is. Scheller says to mix up a quick guacamole with half an avocado, half of a lime's juice, salt, and pepper for an extra energy boost that can be scooped with chopped peppers or carrots.
100% Whole Grain Bread and Oats
"It makes sense that we crave carbs when feeling blue, since these are the very foods that boost levels of the feel-good brain chemical, serotonin," Somer explains. Whole wheat is much better than white bread, since it also stabilizes blood sugar levels, while refined grains can send you on a blood sugar roller coaster, leaving you jittery, grumpy, and hungry." When it comes to incorporating whole grains into your diet, Somer recommends oatmeal as a staple since it contains a fiber called beta-glucan that keeps blood sugar in the healthy range.
Yes, chocolate is on the list. According to Persak, cacao (or raw dark chocolate) is an amazing source of magnesium. "The flavonols in chocolate are shown to boost nitric oxide levels in the blood," she explains, noting that that correlates to improved energy and blood. "Since cacao naturally contains caffeine, it helps to enjoy cacao earlier in the day and away from bedtime so as not to disrupt sleep," she points out. "I sometimes sprinkle cacao powder in my morning beverage, like a nut milk latte. I also love mine in the middle of the afternoon—a few small squares with a fresh apple, since the antioxidants in apples work synergistically with those in cacao."
Green Tea and Coffee
Another saving grace: "Caffeine in moderation also provides an energy boost and is found naturally in green tea and coffee," Syn says. "For allergy-sufferers who experience the 'allergy blahs' or feelings of fatigue, AllerLife Energize ($17.99, target.com) may be of benefit. It contains caffeine and a unique vitamin and mineral blend, along with herbal ingredients, designed to help with the 'allergy blahs.'"