If you’re not running as efficiently as you’d like, you might be surprised at how effective just a few small dietary tweaks can be.
As the days get shorter and the nights get chillier, many of us find ourselves feeling more sluggish throughout the day. Although we may simply need more sleep during this time of year—when our ancestors would have spent more time at rest—modern lifestyles generally demand that we maintain busy schedules throughout the winter. When hibernation simply isn’t an option, what’s a tired person to do? Try these seven dietary tips for a natural boost that might help keep you from running on empty.
Eating well throughout the day is the best way to supply sustained energy to all the hard-working parts of our bodies, including the brain. A lack of energy is usually a sign that something is out of balance, and diet is often the culprit. When we choose appropriate foods throughout the day, they can keep our energy stores steady and our minds sharp, helping us feel good.
People who eat healthy breakfasts have better moods throughout the day, plus improved concentration. Choose a breakfast packed with fiber, protein and healthy fats such as oatmeal, whole-grain toast with peanut butter or scrambled eggs. Eat similarly at lunch, dinner and for snacks, combining whole grains, vegetables, fruits, proteins and healthy fats. (For healthy snack ideas, see our Healthy Snacking collection page.)
Although food supplies us with energy, eating too late at night could actually prevent us from getting high-quality rest. Terry Walters, author of Clean Food, suggests aiming to eat your last meal a few hours before bedtime so you’ll enjoy restorative sleep through the night, rather than stalled digestion.
Studies show that even very mild levels of dehydration can slow us down. Recent studies conducted at the University of Connecticut’s Human Performance Laboratory found that mild dehydration altered mood, energy levels and the ability to think clearly. When dehydrated, our bodies draw upon their resources to adjust internal water balances instead of using those resources to provide energy, says David Grotto, a registered dietitian and author of The Best Things You Can Eat.
When it’s not hot outside it can be easy to let water consumption slip. While there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for the amount of water you should drink, common recommendations range from 64 to 100 ounces a day. One method is to divide your weight in half and drink that many ounces of water daily. The Institute of Medicine recommends using thirst as your guide. It is possible, though rare, to overhydrate, so always pay attention to thirst cues. Want something more flavorful than water? Coconut water hydrates while delivering electrolytes to keep the body balanced. Many fruits and vegetables can be hydrating, too.
Sweets cause blood sugar to spike and dip, making us feel wired, then tired and sluggish. When it’s time to reach for a snack, opt for something with complex carbohydrates to keep blood sugar levels stable instead. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, and we can maximize energy by steadily delivering slow-burning carbohydrates, rather than straight simple sugars. (To learn more about what sugar does to our bodies, read the article All About Sugar.)
If you crave something sweet, enjoy a piece of fruit, which contains fiber, or protein-packed yogurt with honey. Faster-burning sugars do provide a sometimes-necessary boost of energy. Combining them with slower-burning carbs helps prevent the spike-and-dip cycle that leads to sugar addiction. You might also consider sweetening coffee, tea, oatmeal and yogurt with stevia, a calorie-free herb that has no effect on blood sugar levels.
When you need a boost, a little bit of caffeine should do the trick, because it temporarily speeds up the body’s metabolism. Skip sugar- and preservative-laden energy drinks and go straight to a source of naturally occurring caffeine such as coffee or tea. One cup of coffee in the morning is OK for most people, but consider sipping it slowly throughout the morning for more consistent results.
Most teas contain less caffeine than coffee, but it may be all you need. Green tea contains many powerful antioxidants in addition to the moderate caffeine boost. Studies show that green tea can also improve memory and attention. If you want caffeine later in the day, opt for tea, and aim to stop consuming caffeine by late afternoon. If sustained energy throughout the day is a concern for you, you don’t want to do anything to mess with your sleep at night.
Chocolate also contains low levels of caffeine, plus a mild stimulant called theobromine. A small serving of dark chocolate, which doesn’t usually contain too much sugar, can also boost mood temporarily.
Protein-rich foods such as beans, nuts, meat, fish, tofu, eggs and dairy help our bodies make use of their energy sources by shuttling nutrients to and from various tissues. Pork, chicken, beef and turkey also contain tyrosine, which increases chemicals in the brain that keep us focused and alert.
If you start feeling sluggish in the afternoon and your temptation is to reach for something sweet, try to retrain your brain to go for protein instead. Protein wakes up brain receptors. You’ll find it delivers exactly the boost you need, but without the feel-bad fall afterward.
Many patients with low energy benefit from supplemental magnesium because it’s deficient in much of the soil in which our food is grown, says Jason Hamm, a Chinese medicine specialist in Lawrence, Kansas. Magnesium deficiency can lead to low energy, plus a number of other problems. A study conducted by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service found that during moderate activity, subjects with low magnesium levels used more energy, leading directly to fatigue, than those with adequate levels.
Good food sources of magnesium include dark, leafy greens; nuts; seeds, especially pumpkin seeds; whole grains; beans; lentils; avocados; bananas; dried fruit; and some fish, especially halibut.
So-called because they are incredibly nutritionally dense, superfoods deliver low-calorie infusions of numerous nutrients, including the all-important antioxidants that slow the processes of aging. A few superfoods to sprinkle throughout your day include cinnamon; cacao powder; lemon juice; sprouted seeds; chia seeds; berries of all kinds, especially goji berries; and cereal grasses (barley grass, wheatgrass, chlorella, spirulina). To learn more about superfoods, see 4 Superfood Recipes.
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