Dragging through your day? Can’t muster up enough enthusiasm to play with your kids or go to the gym? That dreaded lack of energy is not only annoying, it’s negatively impacting the quality of your life. In addition to adequate sleep, changing your diet can significantly increase your vim and vigor. We called on sports nutrition expert Cynthia Sass, RD, MPH, for answers to our energy-seeking questions. Here are her best diet tips to do away with daily fatigue.
SheKnows: How do processed carbs and refined sugar affect our energy level?
Cynthia Sass: Processed grains, which lack fiber and nutrients, and refined sugar both get digested and absorbed quickly, which can wreak havoc with your blood sugar and energy levels. You end up with a short spike followed by a crash. Too much processed carbs like white pasta, white rice and sweets can also lead to chronically high blood sugar, which can impede circulation and interfere with the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to each cell, which can zap your energy. Ditch sugary drinks like soda, sweet tea and lemonade and stick with “good” carbs from whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, nonfat dairy products and whole grains like brown rice, oats, and whole grain pasta.
SheKnows: Should we be ditching or drinking coffee for energy?
Cynthia Sass: Be consistent with coffee. Caffeine is a diuretic, which means it triggers water loss, and even slight dehydration can lead to headaches and fatigue. But newer research indicates that after about five days of consistent caffeine intake, our bodies adjust, and the caffeine is no longer dehydrating. The trick is to stick with “moderate” amounts (not a pot a day) and be consistent. In other words, if you typically start your day with a cup of coffee you should be fine, but if you usually stop at one and decide to go for a second one morning, or you’re inconsistent, you may feel an energy drain.
SheKnows: What is the best alternative for caffeine, for those of us who don’t drink coffee?
Cynthia Sass: Green tea is a natural stimulant but it’s also bundled with antioxidants, which makes it a perfect energy booster. You can even cook with green tea! I use it as both a beverage and a natural seasoning. I whip loose tea leaves into smoothies, combine them with pepper and other herbs like thyme as a rub for chicken or tofu, or use brewed tea as a marinade for shrimp, a flavorful liquid for steaming veggies, or as a broth for soup, whole grain noodles or whole grain rice.
SheKnows: What’s the key to sustained energy from our diet?
Cynthia Sass: Do not eat carb-only meals. Carbs are the most efficient source of fuel for every cell in your body, which is probably why they’re so abundant in nature, and why they get digested and absorbed pretty quickly. But if you’re looking for sustained energy over a longer period of time always combine carbs like fruit and grains with lean protein, and “good” fat. The combo will delay the emptying of your stomach, resulting in a slower digestion and absorption of carbs. That means a lower, steady rise in blood sugar and better insulin control, so your cells will receive an even, time-released delivery of fuel (read: energy) over a longer period of time.
SheKnows: What are the energy-upping lean proteins we should be eating?
Cynthia Sass: Red meat doesn’t fall into this category. I’ve long been a fan of a Mediterranean style of eating, which I consider to be the gold standard for health and disease prevention, and in Mediterranean countries like Greece, Italy and Spain, where people live longer and rates of heart disease are much lower, red meat is rarely consumed. Fatty red meats are high in artery clogging saturated fat and tend to be difficult to digest, leading to sluggishness. To Mediterraneanize your menus and improve your energy levels, trade ground beef for minced mushrooms in tacos and fajitas, swap grilled steak for grilled seafood, make a stir fry with edamame rather than beef, and choose bean-based soups and chili.
SheKnows: Is meal timing an important factor in our energy levels?
Cynthia Sass: Absolutely. Never let over five hours go by without eating. Waiting too long to eat forces your body to make something out of nothing – in other words, your body always needs fuel to keep your brain, nervous system and muscles going. When none is available, your body does two things. First, it switches into conservation mode and burns fewer calories (which means your energy level stays low and your brain and body don’t perform as well as they should) and second, you dip into your fuel reserves, which include muscle mass. Over time this loss of muscle can lead to a weaker immune system and weight gain, two more things that drain your energy.
SheKnows: In addition to taking a multivitamin, what can we do to avoid nutrient deficient-induced lethargy?
Cynthia Sass: Eating a wider variety exposes your body to a broader spectrum of antioxidants and nutrients, which means better overall nourishment and energy. To expand your variety aim for five different colored fruits and veggies every day (blueberries, leafy greens, orange carrots, red peppers, cauliflower – yup white counts as a color), use a variety of antioxidant rich herbs and spices to season your food (basil, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, etc.), and switch up your whole grains by alternating brown and wild rice or whole wheat pasta with barley, quinoa and whole corn.
SheKnows: Can processed foods contribute to low energy levels?
Cynthia Sass: Yes! Processed foods are loaded with sodium. Fluid is attracted to sodium like a magnet, so when you take in excess sodium, you’ll retain more fluid. This extra fluid puts more work on your heart, ups your blood pressure, and leads to bloating, water retention and puffiness, all side effects that can drain energy. The best way to avoid too much is to eat more fresh foods and read the labels on packaged foods. Check the %DV per serving, which indicates the amount of sodium one serving of a packaged food contains compared to the maximum recommended limit. Minimally processed foods, like frozen veggies for example, should be low in sodium compared to highly processed foods like frozen waffles. A quick scan for the percent can really help put foods in perspective.
SheKnows: Are you saying that eating only fresh foods is the best way to gain and maintain our all-day energy?
Cynthia Sass: Yep. The phrase, “You are what you eat” is literally true. Nutrients from food create the foundation for the structure and function of every cell in your body. Because you body is continuously regenerating and repairing itself how healthy and strong your cells are is directly determined by how well you’ve been eating. Whole, natural foods provide raw materials that go to work in your body to help keep your cells in tip top shape. But when you consume foods made with artificial additives it’s the nutritional equivalent of dumping garbage or waste into a beautiful, clean lake – those additives mucks up your system, have no function, and your body has to work harder to do something with them. Case in point: man made trans fat, aka partially hydrogenated oil. Numerous studies have linked it to heart disease, the nation’s number-one killer, as well as infertility, cancer, type 2 diabetes, liver problems, and obesity. In one study infertility risk jumped by a whopping 73 percent with each 2 percent increase in trans fat.
SheKnows: Since getting sick saps our energy, what is your top diet tip for boosting the immune system?
Cynthia Sass: Eat “good” bacteria. Roughly 75 percent of your immune system is within your digestive system, which is one reason why you feel so lousy when your digestive system is out of whack. To bolster it, consume “good” probiotic bacteria every day, like Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium, which are similar to the natural bacteria found in our “guts” that aid digestion and immunity. A recent Swedish study found that employees given Lactobacillus got sick less often and missed far fewer days of work. You can take probiotics in pill form, which contain higher doses, and smaller amounts are found in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, miso and kimchi.
For more healthy, energy-boosting tips, visit Shape.com.