Learn How to Eat for Energy to Maximize Your Days 

We all get sluggish. Find out what foods you can eat to boost your energy naturally.

Published December 29, 2022
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What do you do when that late afternoon energy slump sneaks up on you and your body starts to drag? Do you grab a caffeinated soda? Reach for a sweet treat? Maybe you go for an energizing walk or take a nap. All of these solutions might give you a temporary burst of energy, but it might also be smart to look at ways to maintain better energy levels over the long term.

One potential solution is to look at your diet. Do you eat for energy? Or do you choose foods based on flavor or convenience? Believe it or not, a high-energy diet can be both delicious and easy to prepare. It is simply a matter of knowing which foods to choose and which ones to limit.

How Food Gives You Energy

The food and drinks that you consume every day provide your body with fuel in the form of calories. As soon as you eat, hormones get to work digesting the food and turning it into energy for your muscles, your organs, and all of your physical functions." So the first rule of eating for high energy is to make sure that you are getting the right amount of fuel, or calories.

To make sure that you are consuming the right number of calories each day, you can use the Body Weight Planner provided by the National Institutes of Health. Simply input basic information about your body size and activity level, then get an estimate of the number of calories to consume each day. Keep in mind that the number simply serves as a guide. It is not exact. You can use it as a starting point and make adjustments as needed based on your hunger and energy levels.

Once you know that you are getting the right number of calories, then you can address calorie quality. All food has the potential to provide energy in the form of calories," says Kimberly Gomer, a registered dietician who practices in Miami and coaches people to lose weight and live a healthy lifestyle. But she says that some food is better for providing the energy that we need.

Need to Know

Gomer explains that we obtain calories by eating carbohydrates, protein, and fats - what we call the macronutrients. Vitamins and minerals -or micronutrients - are also involved in how calories are used and processed. If you eat foods high in quality nutrients, both micronutrients and macronutrients, then your body can use them more efficiently to make energy.

How to Eat for Energy

So, what is the best diet for energy? In general, the best diet for high energy will include a good balance of all the food groups as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 - 2025. Then, you want to choose nutrient-rich foods within each group and time your meals and snacks to meet your needs.

Vary Your Dietary Pattern

The USDA makes recommendations for a healthy dietary pattern based on the latest nutrition research. Your dietary pattern describes the combination of foods you eat and drink, and how many nutrients your food choices include. According to the USDA, foods from each of these groups should be included in your diet to help your body perform at its best:

  • Vegetables such as leafy greens, colorful peppers, carrots, or fiber-rich, cruciferous varieties like broccoli.
  • Fruits like berries, bananas, apples, and citrus fruits are packed with vitamins and sweetness.
  • Grains, especially whole-grains, provide fiber and other nutrients like B vitamins and minerals.
  • Dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese provide protein and minerals like calcium.
  • Protein from sources like fish, lean meat, beans, and soy products help your body to stay strong.
  • Oils, especially plant based oils, provide your body with healthy fat for insulation and organ protection.

A healthy dietary pattern includes a wide range of foods from each of these groups. Of course, you'll want to consume nutrient-rich choices like spinach, beans, and whole-grain bread. Foods that provide fewer nutrients, like candy, soda, and heavily processed foods, can be included in a balanced diet but in lesser amounts.

While the USDA guidelines give you the basics for a healthy high-energy diet, nutrition experts also provide some more tips about which types of foods to choose and how to time your meals.

Choose High-Energy Foods

"While all foods provide a varying amount of energy, the secret sauce to energizing your life is eating a variety of foods," says Alex Larson R.D., a registered dietitian who provides nutritional coaching to athletes to improve performance. "Aim for foods that provide quality protein, fiber-rich carbohydrates, fruits, veggies, and healthy fats." For instance, Alex suggests if you're having pizza for dinner, try to include a side of veggies or fruit, or even a glass of milk to provide diversity.

She also provides tips for making choices within different food groups and advice about the one of the most common substances that we go to when we need energy: caffeine.

  • Complex vs. simple carbohydrates: All carbohydrates provide energy. But the type of carbohydrates you choose can make a big difference in your energy levels throughout the day. Simple carbohydrates, like refined sugar and even some high-sugar, low-fiber fruits, get digested quickly. These may give you a brief energy boost, but then a longer energy crash. Complex carbohydrates like those found in whole grains and starchy veggies take longer to digest, so they keep you feeling full longer and keep your energy level steady.
  • Healthy fats: Unsaturated fats like those found in avocados, salmon, olive oil, and canola oil can lower your cholesterol and can even prevent heart attacks and strokes. Saturated fats like butter and cheese are okay too, just in smaller amounts. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends saturated fats should make up only 5-6% of your total calories for the day. If you eat too much saturated fat, you can increase your risk for heart disease.
  • Fruits and vegetables: Foods like broccoli, spinach, carrots, bananas and other produce provide valuable nutrients including complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, and even protein. These nutrients help your body to operate energetically throughout the day, improving functions from how well you see to how efficiently your heart beats.
  • Caffeine can offer a quick energy boost. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), most people can safely consume up to 400mg per day. But keep in mind that different drinks have various amounts and products are not always clearly labeled, so it can be hard to tell when you've reached that limit. You can also find caffeine in products you may not expect, like some headache medicines (Excedrin) or chocolate. The FDA warns that too much caffeine can cause insomnia, anxiety, and an upset stomach.

So, enjoy that cup of tea or coffee, but then try to drink water as much as possible. Too much caffeine can lead to dehydration, which zaps your energy. Staying hydrated keeps your energy levels up. How much water you need varies, so try a water requirement calculator to see how much your body wants to stay peppy.

Time Your Meals to Optimize Energy

You may have heard conflicting information about when or how often to eat. Some eating plans dictate that you eat every few hours, while others advise that you eat only once or twice a day. So which schedule is best for high energy?

"Our body thrives when it receives a steady supply of energy and nutrients every 3-4 hours throughout the day," says Larson. She adds that eating regularly helps to support your metabolism, energy levels, and gut health. On the other hand, Kimberly Gomer suggests that if you are eating a healthy diet, you shouldn't need to eat more than two to three meals per day.

Each person's optimal eating schedule can vary based on their activity level and lifestyle. Exactly what you need can depend on a variety of factors. You can experiment with different schedules. Or if you really want to dig into the specifics, you might benefit from meeting with a nutrition professional to get some insight regarding your particular needs. Try searching for credentialed professional on a database provided by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).

Should Supplements Be Part of a High Energy Diet?

The usefulness of energy bars and drinks as well as pills and powders has been an area of much debate among nutritionists, including the two that we talked to.

A dietary supplement usually comes in the form of a powder or pill. Supplements often contain vitamins and minerals that you may feel are missing from your diet. You can pick and choose which nutrients you want, or take a multivitamin to add a little more of everything.

Fast Fact

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics tells us that supplements can provide valuable nutrients if your body is missing them. However, they urge caution when taking any supplement. These products are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the same way that medications are and are not held to the same standards of quality.

Alex Larson says that energy drinks can play a role in a balanced diet but they should not be a substitute for a balanced diet. "While energy drinks don't replace the energy that's needed through meals and snacks, the caffeine kick offers a mental boost."

Kimberly Gomer points out that some energy bars and beverages don't provide high-quality nutrition. She says when people reach for sugar and other processed carbohydrates for an energy boost, it can lead to a major energy slump soon after. "Energy bars and protein shakes can be highly processed, says Gomer. "Eat real food instead."

Research on energy bars is limited, but Harvard Medical School highlights a study that compared typical energy bars with other sources of carbohydrates. The results? Power bars were "no better than a candy bar at providing sustained energy."

In the end, your body will thank you if you can limit processed foods and fill yourself up with nutritious complex carbs, healthy fats, protein, and water. Everyone finds success in slightly different combinations of these, so experiment with what you like, try some new things, and---above all---listen to your body. Once you know how to read your body's signals, it may just let you know what it needs for energy better than any article. Have fun exploring!

Learn How to Eat for Energy to Maximize Your Days