Busy women tend to wish for more energy many times a day. You already know to get a good night’s sleep, exercise regularly and effectively manage your stress to provide yourself a much-needed boost. Yet, ever since you’ve been eating healthier, you find you still slumping. What gives?
Believe it or not, those low-carb meals aren’t helping your energy levels. “Our bodies rely on the energy and nutrients we get from food, so what we eat – and how and when we eat it – can either drain you or sustain you, “ says Jennifer Sacheck, PhD, associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
Let’s take a look at five energy drains and the simple nutrition tweaks that will provide you more oomph daily.
Energy drain #1: You go long stretches without eating. While the fix – snack early, snack often – is simple, remembering to take a break to do it isn’t. Still, your energy level takes a real hit every time you go more than two hours or so without eating. The reason this is true is that food supplies us with glucose, a type of sugar carried in our bloodstream. In turn, our cells use glucose to make the body’s prime energy transporter, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Your brain, muscles and every cell in your body needs it. When your blood sugar drops, your cells simply don’t have the raw materials to make ATP. Typically, everyone around you will know it as you become tired, hungry, irritable and unfocused.
Grab a bite to eat at least once every two to four hours to keep your blood sugar steady. It’s also essential to eat within an hour of waking up as that’s when your blood sugar is the lowest.
Energy drain #2: Your breakfast is too “white bread.” Soluble fiber is the food fix for this problem. Energy’s enemy is a sugary breakfast: muffins, pancakes, white toast and such. It is much better to start your day with a soluble fiber like that found in barley, nuts and oatmeal. “It dissolves in the intestinal tract and creates a filter that slows the absorption of sugars and fats, explains David Katz, MD, founder of the Yale Prevention Research Center and author of “Disease Proof.”
Research shows that choosing a breakfast with either soluble fiber or insoluble fiber - the kind found in whole-grain breads and waffles – actually protects against blood sugar spikes and crashes later in the day.
Energy drain #3: You’re eating the wrong vegetables. The food fix is to fill up on broccoli and kale. Technically, there’s no such thing as a “wrong” vegetable, but not all vegetables are created equal. Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale) contain isothiocyanates, compounds that activate a protein in our cells called Nrf2, which in turn generates mitochondria, the part of cells responsible for converting glucose into ATP.
“The more mitochondria you have, the better your muscles work and the less fatigued you’ll be.” explains Mladen Golubic, MD, medical director of the Center for Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute.
Energy drain #4: Avoiding red meat. It would be too simple to say this food fix is to eat red meat, would it not? However, if you eat mostly a vegetarian diet, have heavy and/or long periods, and are a coffee or tea fiend, you may not be getting enough iron, an essential nutrient for strength and stamina. Iron is not only a building block of muscle cells but also hemoglobin, the part of your red cells that transports oxygen from your lungs to the cells throughout your body so it can make energy. About 12% of women between 20 and 49 are believed to have iron deficiencies, the most common deficiency in the United States.
“If you’re deficient, you could eat the best diet and still be exhausted, says Meridan Zerner, RD, a sports dietitian at Cooper Aerobics in Dallas, Texas. Women need approximately 18 milligrams of the nutrient daily until age 51, when the requirement drops to 8 mg. Though your body has a six-month store, it can quickly run through it if your periods are heavy, have gastrointestinal bleeding due to ulcers, eat an unbalanced diet or have nutrient absorption problems as a result of celiac disease.
Beef is the best source of heme iron, the form most easily used by the body, a 3-ounce serving contains 3 mg. You can also get your fill of nonheme iron from plant sources, including kidney beans (5 mg in 1 cup) and spinach (3 mg in ½ cup cooked). Your body will better absorb nonheme iron if you pair it with foods rich in vitamin C (berries, orange juice, tomatoes). Also, avoid coffee or tea for at least an hour after eating so their tannic acid will not block the iron absorption.
Energy drain #5: You’ve cut at least one too many carbs: Whole-wheat pasta and potatoes can rescue you here. “Our bodies run on carbohydrates,” stresses Zerner. “It’s too bad they’ve gotten a bad rap.”
In a study from Tufts University, women on a carbs-restricted diet performed worse on memory-based tasks compared with women who cut calories without cutting carbs. When the low-carb group reintroduced them back into their diet, their cognitive skills leveled out. Also, dieters, carbs actually help your body burn fat without depleting your muscle stores for energy.
The ideal diet is 50 - 55% complex carbohydrates, 20 – 25% protein and 25% fat. Complex carbs provide energy while being digested, while protein and fat, along with fiber, slow the digestive process so the boost lasts a good long time. The proportions do not have to be exact.
“Think about getting a mix of high-quality protein, carbohydrates and fat from whole, unprocessed foods over the course of any given day,” says Dr. Katz. “That’s really all we need.”