Can these foods boost your energy?

Struggling to sleep? If the heat, the children or anxiety about the state of the world are keeping you awake, it may be your diet that is suffering.

While most of us in the UK don’t take an afternoon nap to manage tiredness, (despite numerous health benefits), we are a nation of snackers. Fatigue often makes us reach for sugary treats to give us a boost.

Unfortunately, while these treats give us a quick boost of sugar to the blood stream, it comes down all too quickly and can leave us feeling even more tired than before. Could we exchange the sweets and cakes for foods that really do increase energy?

The formula for fuel

“It's about keeping your energy levels consistent,” says dietitian Dr Linia Patel. “Too often if you want an energy boost, you'll get it with sugar, but then your blood sugar levels drop down again, and then guess what? You want another energy boost and you keep repeating this cycle.”

Dr Patel, a British Dietetic Association spokesperson, says you need to control blood sugar levels throughout the day without the massive peaks and troughs. “If you keep your blood sugar levels nice and stable, you're not going to be going from one sugar rush to the next sugar rush.”

So, to stay properly fuelled you should pair nutrients up. “We need to stop looking at it as singular ingredients that will give us a boost. Instead meals and snacks should contain different nutrients which when combined, will work to give us a steady amount of energy.”

Nutritionist Jenna Hope agrees. “Ideally you want to aim for meals and snacks which are high in protein and fibre and/or healthy fats as these nutrients will help to keep you fuller for longer,” she says.

“Additionally, when you pair protein or healthy fats with carbohydrates the sugars are released more slowly into the blood stream which can help to support sustained energy and prevent energy spikes and crashes.”

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Keeping your energy topped up

If you feel so tired you need a snack every few hours, go with it. Being awake does require more energy than sleeping, but sleep deprivation also causes hormone fluctuations that make you crave high-calorie foods. The challenge is to keep the body energised and satisfied until you can rest.

“If you've had just two hours sleep, I’d eat more regularly,” says Dr Patel, “having small, frequent snacks to keep going. But you have to keep the food balanced – so if you have carbohydrates also have protein with it.”

If you're too tired to make anything but toast, wholegrain bread with a protein like nut butter will keep your energy steady. “Fair enough, if you want to add a little jam, you can, but then make sure you’ve got some fibre too – could you add something like raspberries? By doing this, you’re increasing how much work your body has to do, which is a positive thing."

For a mid-morning snack, swap a digestive biscuit for a couple of dates and nuts, which are sweet but also have fibre and protein.

The key is to add to your diet though, not just remove things you see as unhealthy. For example if at lunch your normal go-to is a salad, make sure it's a substantial one with protein and wholegrain carbs. “How about adding some fish, or chicken or lentils? Make sure you’ve got enough fibre, which we don’t eat enough of,” says Dr Patel.

“It’s how all the different foods work together as part of a healthy balanced diet and by eating frequently when you’re overtired, you’ll be keeping your blood sugar levels constant.”

Snacks that keep you satisfied

“In addition to protein, fibre and healthy fats, key energy-supporting nutrients include B vitamins, magnesium and iron too,” explains Jenna, before adding: “Foods such as leafy greens, eggs, Greek yoghurt, roasted chickpeas, hummus, almonds and dark chocolate can all be great options for supporting your energy levels. Try switching your afternoon snack to a few squares of dark chocolate, hummus and carrots, a handful of almonds or Greek yoghurt and berries.

Sweet whole foods like dates or bananas take longer for the body to unpack and the sugars are released slower than the refined sugars often found in convenience foods, and they do come with other nutritional benefits. That doesn’t mean you should eat an unlimited supply though. “It’s all about the balance – having a healthy balanced diet without too much of one thing and not enough of something else. So, if you’re having a natural sugar, also have nuts with it for the protein,” explains Dr Patel.

“Again, it’s always looking at the nutrients. That’s why things like energy balls are good because they’re mixing everything up into one easy snack.”

You don’t need to cut out ALL ‘unhealthy’ snacks

Sugary treats and high-caffeine drinks won't see you through forever, Jenna explains: “It’s not recommended to get into a regular habit of reaching for high sugar foods or caffeine to pick you up when you’re lacking in energy.

“Constantly reaching for these options can increase your reliance on high sugar foods and may contribute to masking energy issues in the long term. In addition, an over consumption of sugar can contribute to increased risk of disease over a long period of time. High levels of caffeine consumption may also impair sleep which in turn can impact energy throughout the day.

“Having said this, consuming a higher sugar food or a caffeinated drink as a pick-me-up from time to time won’t have long term negative effects on your health, it’s what you consume regularly which will impact your health the most.”

Easy meals to keep you going

If you're regularly missing out on sleep, having meals and snacks on hand to see off the temptation of sweets is all the more important. Batch cooking can help ease the effort of cooking and allow you some rest days, or make a nutritious lunch to take with you.

Easy meals that combine protein, fibre and healthy fats

Easy fibre and protein-rich breakfasts and lunches

Batch cooking healthy meals

And if you’re already eating a well-balanced diet but still feeling fatigued?

If you feel you’re more fatigued than you should be, it could be you’re lacking in iron or B vitamins, explains Dr Patel.

“Iron is the big one – especially women because we have menstrual cycles. Red blood cells transport oxygen around the body, and the more you have, the more energetic you’ll feel. So, if you've got less iron, you could feel very fatigued and even breathless when you walk up a set of stairs.”

In addition to lean red meat and chicken, Dr Patel adds you can also get iron from dark green leafy vegetables, lentils and apricots. But, if you’re going for plant-based options, she warns: “It’s not in the form that the body absorbs very easily. It has to still be converted. So just add some vitamin C to which helps convert it.” Citrus fruits, blackcurrants, red peppers, kale and even fresh parsley are all good sources of vitamin C.

As for B vitamins, “You’ll find them in foods that give you energy anyway - slow release carbohydrates and protein.” Of course, if you have concerns that you’re fatigued and low in energy you should always consult your doctor.

Originally published July 2022.