Feeling a little sluggish? We all have days when getting out of bed seems a bit too much like hard work. Often, the first thing we do to try and power through days with low energy is to stock up on snacks. But it turns out that the foods you think are giving you an energy boost can actually make you feel worse!September 08, 2020 1:15 pm
Think about the snacks you reach for when you’re tired. It’s usually something filling and satisfying. Unfortunately, many of those foods come with a side of lots of extra sugar. And, although our bodies rely on sugar for energy, eating lots of it in one go can do more harm than good.
What’s more, there are different kinds of sugars and different ways of digesting them, all of which can stack up to different results.
Either you’ll start to process them slowly and feel more energised, or you’ll process them all in one go. That leads to the ever familiar sugar crash. And if you’ve ever experienced one of those, you’ll know they’re best avoided.
In this article we’re taking a look at the best healthy foods for giving you energy. But before we get into all that, let’s talk about where our energy comes from.
How does your body get its energy?
Let’s head back to high school biology for a moment. Remember mitochondria, those little organelles that live inside your cells? If so, you’ll also recall that their main function in the body is to produce energy.
Your mitochondria take oxygen and nutrients from the food you eat and use them to produce energy in a process called oxidative phosphorylation.(1)
During this process, a compound called adenosine triphosphate (sometimes called ATP) is produced, This zippy little guy then transports the energy produced by your mitochondria to wherever your cell needs the energy. Once it gets there, special enzymes break it down and it hands over the energy for use in cell activities. (2)
If your mitochondria produce more ATP than your cells actually need at the moment, your liver comes into play, converting ATP and glucose into a substance called glycogen. This is a handy way to store the energy until you need it. When you need more energy, for example if you’re exercising, your liver converts the glycogen back into glucose and ATP, which can then be used by your mitochondria to produce more energy. (3) Clever, right?
Of all the nutrients from the food you eat, glucose is the most important when it comes to producing energy in the body. (4) So let’s focus in on that. → View Related Products
Glucose and energy
Glucose is a simple sugar, or monosaccharide. You can find glucose (predictably) in sweet foods such as honey and fruit. Lots of animals, including us, use glucose for energy production and it can be found in our blood as a result.(5)
However, having too much glucose in the bloodstream at one time can be harmful. A 2009 study linked high blood sugar levels (also called hyperglycaemia) to memory and cognitive deficiencies in animals (6) while others have shown it to increase high blood pressure and cause damage to your blood vessels. (7)
To avoid this, our bodies regulate the amount of glucose in our bloodstream to make sure our blood sugar levels stay relatively stable.
People with diabetes often suffer from irregular blood sugar because their bodies are not able to regulate the glucose in their blood. They need to take special measures to help keep their blood sugar in check.
If you’re not diabetic, you can rely on your body’s natural processes to do this. But even so, you should be careful about the amount of simple carbohydrates, such as glucose and fructose, you consume.
If you eat a lot of foods which contain simple carbohydrates, your body easily absorbs them into the bloodstream. That means a great big blood sugar spike for you.
Your body will eventually regulate your blood sugar levels, meaning that you can avoid the kind of serious damage described above.
However, experiencing a blood sugar spike is pretty horrible. You may be feeling fantastic in the short term, as your body gets buzzing with all the energy it can produce. But it also kicks your sugar regulation processes into high gear, trying to take all that excess glucose out of your bloodstream as quickly as possible.
You’ll soon be experiencing a blood sugar crash (technical name: reactive hypoglycemia). This sudden drop in glucose can leave you feeling anxious, light-headed, irritable, headachy, and sweaty. (8) In short: you’re hangry.
So, if you can’t stock up on sugary snacks for energy, since the inevitable crash will make you feel so much worse, what should you be eating? → View Related Products
What to look for in an energy boosting food
Essentially, you want to provide plenty of glucose for your body. But you need to make sure that it will be delivered into your bloodstream slowly over time, so your body can regulate your blood sugar. That means plenty of energy, without the dreaded sugar crash.
To do this, you need to look for foods that contain complex carbohydrates.
Unlike their simple counterparts, complex carbohydrates consist of several simple sugars stuck together. It takes your body a while to break them into their constituent monosaccharides, ensuring that they’re released into your bloodstream in a more measured way.
Some examples of foods which contain complex carbohydrates are whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans. You already knew they were better for you, and now you know just one of the reasons why!
Another great way to choose energy foods is to look at their glycemic index (GI). This method ranks foods from 0 to 100 in terms of how fast your body can get to the glucose within them.
Foods with a high glycemic index are rapidly digested and the glucose from them can get into your bloodstream very quickly. Foods with a low glycemic index, on the other hand, take longer to digest and metabolise. Hence, the supply of glucose into your blood is slower. (9)
These foods will provide you with a steady stream of energy, rather than the dreaded spike-crash combo.
The best foods for energy
1. Whole grains
Grains are made up of three parts: the brain, endosperm and the germ.
Processed grain products such as breakfast cereals and white bread remove the germ and bran, leaving only the endosperm. Unfortunately, that’s the starchy carbohydrate bit, which is easily broken down into glucose.
Whole grains, however, keep all three parts. The additional bran and fibre slow down your ability to digest the starchy carbohydrates within, which gives you a steadier sugar supply.
Not only that, but the bran and endosperm are packed with vitamins, minerals and healthy fats.
The benefits of eating whole grains have been studied at length and include a reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes. (10) → View Related Products
Swap out white rice for whole grain rice or quinoa. Or explore a new whole grain! Like quinoa, amaranth is technically a seed, but still considered a grain because they’re so nutritionally similar. It’s sometimes called a ‘pseudocereal’ because of this. (11) Many cultures have been taking advantage of the health benefits of amaranth for generations.
Amaranth has a delicious nutty flavour and is super versatile. Start the day as you mean to go on by adding some popped amaranth to your yoghurt or porridge at breakfast for a crunchy, vitamin-packed topping. Or, go back to basics and use amaranth grain as a side dish with lunch or dinner, just as you would rice or millet.
The slow release of energy will keep you going all day.
2. Nuts and seeds
Resist the processed snack bar! If you’re feeling a mid-afternoon slump, reach for a handful of nuts instead.
'Nuts have a naturally low glycemic index and they’re full of extra goodies such as fibre and protein, which help you feel full.'
They also contain vitamins such as vitamin E, which is great for hair and skin health. Not only that, but a recent study found that people who ate nuts on the daily lived longer, healthier lives than people who didn’t! (12) If that doesn’t convince you, what will?
Sadly, because of their long shelf-life, nuts are often not as fresh as one might like by the time you buy them. Because they’re also high in natural oils, they are quite likely to go rancid if left in storage for a long time. You can tell immediately if your nuts are rancid because they’ll have a bitter, unpleasant taste – not what you’re looking for in a tasty afternoon snack.
If you can, try and source organic nuts from a supplier that tries to minimise the amount of time the nuts spend in storage before they get to you. And, once they’re home, store them in a cool, dark spot.
Similarly, to avoid any unexpected nasties on your nuts, shop organic.
3. Low GI fruit and vegetables
You’re pretty safe with fruits and vegetables, although it’s worth mentioning that some should be avoided.
White potatoes, for example, have a high glycemic index because their starches are easily broken down into glucose. So, best to limit your intake or swap out for a different veggie.
Sweet potatoes, for example, could easily replace white potatoes in many meals, and have a lower GI index.
Other vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes, celery and peppers are also great options. Mid-afternoon crudité selection, anyone?
That’s all well and good, but what about breakfast? If you like to start the morning with something sweet, you might find it hard to start incorporating vegetables into your routine.
If that sounds like you, give our Tigernut and Jerusalem Artichoke Granola a go. Both of these ingredients are low GI, and it’s naturally sweetened with low GI fruits such as apples and dates. You can have it on its own as a snack, or top with your favourite milk or yoghurt for breakfast.
Alternatively, if you have more of a sweet tooth when it comes to snacking, head to the fruit bowl. Apples, peaches, and berries like blueberry and strawberry, taste super sweet but come with a low GI index.
Dried fruits have traditionally been thought to be very sugary but a recent study shows that they might actually be beneficial in regulating blood sugar. More research is needed to confirm the effect. (13) → View Related Products
4. Healthy snacking
So, you’re watching your GI indexes and eating lots of vegetables – so you have no need to snack between meals, right?
Well, life doesn’t quite work that way, does it? Most of us will still get hungry or start to feel a bit droopy between meals, and it’s completely fine to grab a snack.
Based on what we know about healthy energy foods, there are plenty of options for healthy, energy-boosting snacks.
If you’re of a savoury inclination, why not try hummus with raw vegetables or a wholegrain pitta? These are all low GI, and the chickpeas in hummus are also high in protein. While not a major energy source, protein can help you feel full and build muscle. A great post-workout option!
If you prefer sweet snacks, aim for fruits or even a few squares of dark chocolate. It has a much lower GI than milk or white chocolate, and contains antioxidants to boot.
Our energy health box contains our coconut and cacao energy balls, plus our zingy sea buckthorn shots to invigorate and keep blood sugar in check. They also contain high levels of vitamin C – nearly half of your recommended daily allowance, in fact – which may also help reduce fatigue.(14)
Armed with a little knowledge, it’s easy to find healthy, natural foods which can give you an energy boost without the sugar crash.
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