Written by Kirstyn Brown, Editor-in-Chief | Photography by Paul Buceta
Sluggish. Fatigued. Drained. Spent. If you’ve uttered these words at all today, your instincts might be telling you to down another double espresso. But the answer to your low energy dilemma isn’t at the bottom of a coffee cup— it’s in your diet. “A lot of people look to sugar and caffeine for energy,” says Brendan Brazier, vegan athlete and author of the Thrive Energy Cookbook. “But the problem is these give you energy by stimulation, not nourishment, which eventually burn out your adrenals.”
Physiologically speaking, it’s our adrenal glands’ job to produce adrenaline and cortisol hormones in response to stressors (helping us launch into flight or prepare to fight). However, caffeine triggers the exact same hormonal response with each cup, providing that burst of temporary alertness we’ve come to know and love. This is harmless if you’re an occasional drinker, but as a coffee-obsessed culture, we’re overtaxing our adrenals and becoming less sensitive to stimulants.
With this in mind, we reached out to two nutrition experts in search of more sustainable sources of energy. Their advice? Load up your diet with foods containing the nutrients your body needs to function optimally, like the ones listed here, and eventually, you won’t have to rely on lattes just to get through the day. “The key is to eat foods that are part of a holistic lifestyle,” says Susan Levin, MS, RD. “This will help condition your body overtime. You’ll sleep better and you’ll recover faster, and then you can train more. This is the approach that makes elite athletes.”
The key to improved energy here, as with many legumes, veggies and whole grains, is fiber. It may not be the sexiest nutrient, but what it lacks in excitement it makes up for in health benefits. “Mainly, fiber helps with digestion,” says Levin. “If the food you’re consuming isn’t moving through you, you’re going to feel sluggish and weighed down. The more fiber you eat, the faster food is moving through you.” Levin adds that fiber slows down the digestion process, which helps to regulate blood sugar and avoid spikes and crashes that can leave you feeling drained. “Fiber is very important for feeling energized, especially when you’re working out regularly.”
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Other sources: Split peas, black beans, raspberries, ground chia and flax seeds, steel cut oats, artichokes, pears, broccoli, cabbage.
In the last few years, kale has become the coolest cruciferous veg in the superfood crew. But make sure your love of this leafy green isn’t just a fling—especially if your goal is to feel re-energized. Incredibly rich in vitamins and minerals, kale and other dark leafy greens should be a staple in your diet. These greens rank high on the list of alkaline-forming foods, meaning those that help balance out your body’s pH levels, which in turn reduces inflammation. “When your muscles are inflamed it makes it harder for you to move efficiently, causing greater fatigue,” says Brazier, best-selling author of The Thrive Diet and most recently, Thrive Energy Cookbook. Chronic inflammation, adds Brazier, can also drive up levels of the stress hormone cortisol, a side-effect that can get in the way of a good night’s sleep.
Other sources: Spinach, broccoli, seaweed, swiss chard, collard greens, asparagus, cabbage, salmon, garlic, papaya, ginger, turmeric.
Fish and seafood are sure-fire heart healthy ways to get your dose of B12, a vitamin that’s linked to a number of functions within the body including red blood cell formation, nervous system and brain function and yes, energy levels (a symptom of B12 deficiency is lack of energy and weakness). A 4-oz serving of cod or tuna nets you more than a hundred percent of your daily value, and just 3 oz of clams gets you around 10 times that amount. But bad news for vegans, warns Levin: B12 is made by bacteria and found almost exclusively in animal products. “You won’t get it reliably from plant sources,” she says. “Every vegan and vegetarian should be taking a B12 supplement unless they’re eating fortified foods.”
Other sources: Poultry, beef, lamb, organ meats, dairy, fortified cereals.
You’ve noticed the letters NO on your container of your pre-workout formula? That’s nitric oxide, and it’s the key to beets’ energy-boosting properties. “Beets produce nitric oxide which can boost energy and improve athletic performance,” says Brazier. How? This root veggie naturally contains high amounts of nitrates, a chemical absorbed from the soil. When you ingest them, nitrates are converted into nitric oxide, which increases blood flow to the muscles, helping your body to produce energy more easily. One study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that when fit men and women ate 200 grams of baked beets before running a 5K, they improved their time by approximately 3 percent.
Other sources: Celery, radishes, watercress, arugula, parsley, spinach, endive, fennel.
Okay, so it’s not exactly a food, but water plays a major role in your energy. Not sipping enough H20 causes your blood to thicken, making your heart work harder to pump it, causing fatigue. “Sometimes people who feel sluggish or don’t have much energy think they’re lacking a nutrient,” says Levin. “But often times they’re just dehydrated.” Water also helps keep fiber moving, improving digestion, helping you function optimally and feel energized. While water requirements tend to differ from person to person, the average recommendation is 64 oz per day, says Levin, so that’s a good place to start. For active women who are training and sweating regularly, they’ll probably need to aim higher than the typical eight glasses a day.
Other sources: Herbal tea, broth-based soups, watermelon, berries, cucumber, celery, iceberg lettuce, grapefruit.
Did you know? Water-dense foods count towards your overall intake, so eat lots of hydrating foods like soups, celery, melon and lettuce.
High in fiber, minerals and protein, quinoa provides a slow and steady energy boost without the crash. This pseudo-grain (it’s actually a seed) is naturally gluten-free, easy to digest and provides a healthy dose of iron and magnesium, both of which can influence your energy levels. “Quinoa is what I call a high-net-gain food,” says Brazier, referring to the energy that is left over after your body has worked to process what you’ve eaten. “These foods require less digestive energy, and provide vitamins and antioxidants. People who base their diet on highly refined carbs are eating low-net-gain foods.” A higher net energy gain from nutrient-dense food also keeps your stress levels at bay and can improve sleep quality, leaving you feeling more energized.
Other sources: Wild rice, buckwheat, amaranth, fruit.
These foods can cause energy levels to take a nosedive:
Fatty cuts of meat: The fattier the meat, the more digestive energy your body spends trying to work it through the system. Stick to smaller portions or leaner types of proteins and opt for meat alternatives on occasion.
Sugar: Candy, refined carbs, even dried fruits and juices may give you a quick boost, but they’ll only result in a crash, says Levin. Complex carbs and whole fruits contain fiber to help regulate blood sugar and sustain your energy levels.
Cooked fats: These are harder for the body to process and turn into energy, says Brazier. Avoid cooking meat and oils (such as olive) at high temperatures and go for raw fats when possible, like hemp and flax oil, avocado, seeds and nuts.