It’s not all right to feel just alright. Most people I talk to complain about their low energy levels, from young adults in their twenties to those in their eighties. It is generally accepted that we will experience changes to our energy levels as we age but life doesn’t have to be this way. We can be clear-headed, energetic, optimistic and cheerful when we eat the right food. Quite simply, when we eat the right food we change our body’s metabolism to use the energy in our food more efficiently; instead of storing it as fat, we will use it for energy.
Our food environment has changed in recent decades as traditional, whole-food eating has been replaced by refined, processed food which includes white bread and pasta, breakfast cereals, bacon, sausage and ham. We consume high-sugar manufactured cakes and biscuits daily without any thought to what that means for our energy levels and health. The influential food industry has convinced us that low-fat diets are best which has taken our focus away from what is really important: SUGAR.
In the USA average sugar consumption per person, each year rose from 56kg (124lb) in 1975 to 71kg (157lb) in 1999 (1). Sugar is hidden in processed foods including bread, cakes, sweets, soft drinks, crisps and savoury snacks, condiments, breakfast cereals and ready meals.
Unknowingly, we have accepted a food environment which has caused our bodies to lose our natural balance; we are on a roller-coaster ride of blood sugar, energy and weight imbalance which can lead to permanent tiredness, weight gain and cravings.
When we eat refined, processed foods, which are fast-releasing carbohydrates, our blood sugar levels go up prompting the body to release insulin into the bloodstream to deal with it. Insulin removes the excess sugar to restore our blood sugar levels and takes it to the liver where it is turned into fat and stored. Then our blood sugar level dips and we feel tired and hungry leading to us reaching for a stimulant, food or otherwise, after which our blood sugar goes up again to restart the cycle. Over time our body starts to become insulin resistant so more and more insulin is needed to restore the balance of our blood sugar levels; eventually, pre-diabetes is a reality.
However, losing control of blood sugar balance is not just a problem for those who are diabetic, it is something we all need to control. Too much sugar in our blood is bad for all of us: it damages our arteries which can lead to cardiovascular disease.
Macros are short for macronutrients and is a term that refers to the three categories of nutrients we eat most and provide the most energy: proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
As we have learnt already, fast-releasing carbohydrates cause blood sugar imbalances and energy crashes which is harmful to our health. Aim to eat slow-releasing carbohydrates including wholegrains, vegetables and fruit:
|Fast-releasing carbohydrates to avoid||Slow-releasing carbohydrates to eat|
|White bread White pasta and rice White flour||Wholemeal bread & pasta|
|Biscuits, Cakes, Pastries, Sweets||Oats Rough oatcakes Brown Rice, Quinoa, Buckwheat|
|Breakfast cereals containing sugar||Dark green leafy vegetables|
|Chips, Baked Potatoes||Root vegetables|
|Dried fruit||Apples, Pears, Berries, Citrus fruit|
Fibre is a complex carbohydrate from plant cell walls and cannot be digested by humans. Around 30g of fibre every day will avoid constipation which depletes us of energy; supports blood sugar levels; helps us to feel fuller for longer and feeds the influential microflora in our gut. Include oats, legumes wholegrains, vegetables and fruit and drink water alongside to support energy levels.
Fat is an essential source of energy for the body and the most concentrated form at 9 kcals per 1 gram compared to 4 kcals per gram for protein and carbohydrates.
Fat can be divided into two main types: saturated and unsaturated fat. Saturated fat is not essential, the main sources are meat and dairy products, which we should eat occasionally. Coconut is an exception, it is a MCT (Medium chain triglyceride) which has benefits to our health and because it doesn’t generate harmful oxidants when heated, can be used for sautéing food. MCTs are converted to ketones and used by the brain cells to make energy so important for brain health.
Unsaturated fats can be divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, avocado and brazil nuts and polyunsaturated fats are in nut and seed oils and fish. Some polyunsaturated fats are essential because they can’t be made by the body: Omega 3 and 6. These are vital for the immune system, brain, nervous system and cardiovascular system all of which influence our energy levels.
|Aim to limit or avoid||Aim to eat|
|Limit eating meat to 2 or 3 times a week and limit dairy foods||Oily fish including mackerel, salmon, anchovies|
|Use cold-pressed oils in dark, glass bottles||Sardines and herring three times a week|
|Avoid deep-fried food & hydrogenated fat||1 tablespoon of cold-pressed seed oil or 1 tablespoon of ground seeds a day|
Processed foods usually contain harmful, hydrogenated fats and deep-fried foods usually contain damaged trans fats: both should be avoided completely for optimal health and energy.
Protein is made of amino acids and is vital for the growth and repair of tissue and muscle; carrying substances in the body; form enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and antibodies. These life-maintaining processes fundamentally influence our energy levels.
Some proteins are known as complete proteins because they contain all essential amino acids including eggs, quinoa, buckwheat, soya, dairy, meat and fish. Meat requires a lot of energy to digest and promotes an acidic, pro-inflammatory environment in the body so consider replacing meat with plant protein to support your energy levels.
Plant proteins such as legumes, grains, nuts and seeds are incomplete proteins so a variety is needed in the diet to supply all the essential amino acids. These plant proteins also contain beneficial complex carbohydrates, phytonutrients and prebiotics.
|Aim to limit or avoid||Aim to eat|
|Limit eating meat to 2 or 3 times a week||Lean animal protein|
|Limit dairy foods||Three portions of plant-based proteins a week|
Aim to include a good source of quality protein with every meal and snack to help balance blood sugar levels and avoid dips in energy.
Plant foods, ideally organic, provide a wide range of vitamins and minerals which we can call micros or micronutrients. Our bodies require these nutrients for normal growth and function. Plant foods also supply phytonutrients such as flavonoids, carotenoids and lycopene which are beneficial to health.
Vitamins are needed for a range of body functions including the formation of red blood cells, energy production and a healthy immune system. B vitamins are particularly important for energy levels.
Minerals originate in the earth and are obtained by plants from the soil; they have many vital functions with magnesium and iron being the most relevant to our energy levels. The trace minerals iodine and chromium also support energy levels by supporting metabolism and insulin sensitivity respectively.
Good sources of key vitamins and minerals include:
|Brussels sprouts||Fish||Green leafy vegetables|
Include plant foods such as vegetables, fruit, culinary herbs and spices, grains, sprouted seeds, nuts and legumes in your diet for optimum energy levels. When planning what to eat think of diversity and aim to eat a rainbow of foods every day to benefit from the full range of phytonutrients which reflect the colour of the vegetables and fruit.
Eating a rainbow of plant foods every day will also boost your antioxidant intake. Antioxidants are important for energy levels because they reduce the damage caused by unstable, free radicals in our bodies. Some antioxidants are made by the body, whilst others come from vegetables, fruits, herbs and teas. Coenzyme Q10 is an enzyme and antioxidant that helps with energy production in body cells, as we age our bodies produce less Coenzyme Q10 so being mindful of obtaining it through our food intake is important.
|Coenzyme Q10 Food Sources Peanuts, Pistachios, sesame seeds, olive oil, oranges, strawberries, avocado, broccoli, cauliflower, meat, poultry, herring, sardines, mackerel, trout, eggs|
Water can be considered a macro-nutrient because it is vital for life; symptoms of dehydration include fatigue, headaches, dry eyes, mouth and skin, muscle and joint pain and constipation. Even mild dehydration can impair energy levels, mood, memory and brain performance. (4)
Aim to drink 1.5-2 litres of filtered or spring water for health and energy levels. Herbal teas can also hydrate us and have the benefit of a range of therapeutic properties to further support our health.
Ginger tea offers a range of health benefits including improving circulation, and allowing more oxygen to get to our tissues, which can improve energy levels. (3) Try making your own ginger tea by grating a small piece of fresh root ginger and steeping it in recently boiled water. Add half a teaspoon of honey or a squeeze of lemon to taste. Ginseng tea in the morning can also boost energy and is sometimes used by athletes to improve performance. (3)
Exercise, hotter climates and fever may call for higher levels of rehydration. Avoiding caffeinated, carbonated and sugary drinks is essential to energy levels because they deplete the body of nutrients and can disrupt blood glucose levels.
About Supplements and Superfoods
Vitamins and minerals are best absorbed in their natural form, through our diet, however, there are times when supplements can support the body, for example, whilst dietary changes are embedded. Herbs including Ashwagandha, Siberian ginseng and Rhodiola can help and a herbalist will be able to prepare a formula to suit your individual needs. A nutritional therapist can assess an individual’s symptoms and diet to find deficiencies and suggest diet and supplements to help.
Superfoods are foods which contain all or nearly all vitamins, minerals and trace minerals the body needs; however, they do not work in isolation. First, get the basics of the right balance of macros and micronutrients from a nutritious, whole-food diet as I have explained already. Then consider spirulina, cordyceps and seaweed to optimise your vitality (5).
How to begin
What would more energy mean to you? How would your life change? Begin by brainstorming and writing down the answers to these questions and use them to motivate you to start to change your food habits. Ask yourself, ‘What do I need to start this journey?’ Change can be challenging so consider using a health coach from Create Health and Wellness which will enable you to plan and understand the approach that will work for you.
Influences on our food choices are unique to us relating to our childhood; emotions; social and cultural aspects of our lives; misconceptions and confusion about what is healthy food. Take this opportunity to reflect on what influences your eating habits and whether you can become more thoughtful about your choices to reflect the progress made in science and nutrition in recent decades.
When the food you eat doesn’t support your energy and health, optimum living is likely to remain outside your grasp. Are you ready to invest in your energy and health?
For personalised support complete the contact form on my website and I will arrange a free discovery telephone call with you.
- (1) Patrick Holford: The Low GI Diet Bible p56
- (2) Pacehospital.com (Illustration)
- (3) https://www.wellandgood.com/energizing-herbal-teas/
- (4) https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-health-benefits-of-water#2.-Significantly-affects-energy-levels-and-brain-function
- (5) https://www.thehealthcoach.com/blog/3-must-eat-superfoods-to-boost-energy/