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!April 28, 2022 5:35 pm August 17, 2020 3:00 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 energized, 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 hyperglycemia) 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 metabolize. 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 fiber 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 flavor and is super versatile. Start the day as you mean to go on by adding some popped amaranth to your yogurt 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.