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Can't keep your eyes open after a bad night's sleep? Feeling the mid-afternoon slump? You need to eat some foods that boost energy and give you the get-up-and-go you need.
What sort of foods and fluids should you consume to boost energy when you're feeling tired (opens in new tab)? Our round-up suggests a range of delicious options. There are ones that offer a quick boost, such as dark chocolate or bananas. Alternatively, you may be in need of foods with a low glycaemic index – such as oats, lentils and wholegrains – that offer a slow release of energy throughout the day so you can avoid the dreaded post-lunch sluggishness.
As well as eating certain foods to boost energy, it could be time to give your diet a bit of an overhaul. Do you rely on refined sugary snacks for energy? Do you eat enough fibre-rich veg or complex carbs? Registered dietician Helen Bond suggest that to help maintain energy levels throughout the day try to make sure your diet contains the five food groups in the right amounts, as shown in the Government’s Eatwell Guide: fruit and veg; starchy wholegrain carbohydrates; beans, pulses, fish, eggs and meat and other protein sources; dairy products and alternatives; and oils and spreads.
'Eating most of your meals this way will give you a good balance of carbs, protein and fat. It’s this nutrient combo that helps control energy release, and keeps you feeling fuller and powered for longer,' explains Helen. 'Plus, it can top up stores of energising micronutrients including B vitamins – B1, B2, B3 (Niacin), B6, B7 (Biotin), B12 – vitamin C, manganese, copper, calcium, along with folic acid and iron to help reduce tiredness and fatigue.'
21 foods that boost energy
Here, five nutritionists recommend foods that boost energy and ways to incorporate them into your diet.
1. Lean red meat (and other iron sources)
If there's one nutrient that women tend to fall short of, it's iron. Dietician Helen, who's also a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, explains that iron is essential for preventing the energy-zapping condition anaemia (opens in new tab) yet many of us fail to meet our daily iron needs.
'According to the latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey, (opens in new tab) 25% of women aged 19-64 years have really low intakes of iron. Moreover, teenage girls are even more at risk of a deficiency – 49% have really low intakes of iron,' she says.
To boost your energy... 'Include more iron-rich foods in your diet, such as lean red meat, oily fish, eggs, green leafy veg, dried fruit, nuts and seeds,' says Helen. 'Don’t forget that iron also needs vitamin C to help its absorption, which means eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables in your meals, having a salad with your steak, or fruit juice to accompany your fortified breakfast cereal.'
Known as a superfood for good reason, avocados are one of the most nutritious and versatile foods we can eat. Nutritionist Fiona Hunter (opens in new tab) tells us that vitamin B6 is one of the key energy-boosting B group of vitamins involved in more than 100 different enzyme reactions and – most importantly – the metabolism of protein, carbs and fats.
She adds that B6 is also needed for a sharp brain and a healthy immune system as it helps promote formation of white blood cells and haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of red blood cells.
To boost your energy... Slice them into salads or mashed as guacamole (opens in new tab). Or add half an avocado to a fruit or veg smoothie.
Registered nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert, who currently supports the launch of Nutri Within (opens in new tab) – a range of vitamins available at Lloyds Pharmacy – believes that the humble potato is often neglected in our diets, even thought it's a great source of energy.
'They have a high fibre content which slows down the release of glucose in the blood, leaving you energised for longer,' she explains. For optimum benefits, eat potatoes with the skin on, as the skin contains most of the fibre.
To boost your energy... Cook a vegetable tortilla (opens in new tab) for lunch. Save the leftovers to eat cold the following day.
One of the better known foods that boost energy, 'bananas contain complex carbohydrates which are longer chains of sugar molecules, meaning they take longer to break down so sustain energy levels for longer. They are also filling and a source of potassium,' says Rhiannon.
To boost your energy... Eat a banana or rustle up these two-ingredient banana pancakes (opens in new tab) for brekkie or dessert.
Rhiannon tells us that there are many health benefits of oats (opens in new tab). 'Oats are fantastic for keeping your energy levels up for longer. They're a brilliant breakfast choice, as they'll give you that boost of energy you need while keeping you fuller for longer.'
She continues: 'They have a low glycaemic index (a measure of how quickly a food increases blood glucose levels) meaning you get slower energy release over a longer period of time.'
To boost your energy... Eat plain rolled oats or the healthiest porridge (opens in new tab) brands – ideally without any added sugar. Or add oats to your morning pancakes or yogurt. And don't just save them for breakfast – oats can be used to coat fish or chicken goujons, just like Joe Wicks does in his oaty katsu chicken dippers recipe (opens in new tab).
Poor old kale. Still derided by many, it's actually incredibly nutritious and flavourful if you know what to do with it. 'Kale is a positive powerhouse of energy due to its high content of magnesium, needed to trigger the release of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which works like a rechargeable battery to store and release the energy that powers cells,' explains Fiona. 'Magnesium helps muscles contract and relax, aids nerve function, keeps the heartbeat strong and steady, and works with calcium to build strong bones.'
To boost your energy... Use leaves to kale pesto, add to soup or juices, or – for a healthy snack – make kale chips (opens in new tab).
A. Vogel (opens in new tab) nutritionist Emma Thornton explains why this often overlooked vegetable should be a regular on your lunch plate: 'The nitrates in this root veg could boost your endurance. Beetroot can help to improve athletic performance by influencing blood flow and increasing the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to working muscles.' It may also have an impact on brain power.
To boost your energy... Add sliced beetroot to salads, make a beetroot hummus or roast it in the oven with some rosemary.
8. Oily fish
You only need to eat two or more portions of oily fish a week for it to make a difference to your health. 'Mackerel, salmon, tuna and trout are examples of oily fish that contain omega-3 fatty acids which can be used by the body to produce energy,' says Rhiannon. Secondly, it's a good source of vitamin B12, which converts fats and protein into energy (low levels of B12 is linked to low energy levels). Because B12 isn't found in plant foods, if you're vegan or vegetarian you could benefit from a B12 supplement (opens in new tab).
There are no longer any restrictions on how many eggs you can consume a week so fill your boots. Here, Fiona tells us why eggs are one of the best foods to boost energy: 'They're an excellent source of vitamin B12, which aids manufacture of red blood cells and helps the body process folic acid (another B vitamin). Eggs also contain choline, a nutrient used to make the brain chemical acetylcholine, which helps alertness.'
To boost your energy... Eat two boiled eggs for breakfast, or adding hard-boiled eggs to salads.
While it's not suitable for the lactose-intolerant, don't discard milk if you're ok to drink it. 'Milk is rich in a nutrient that many of us are not familiar with called iodine,' says Helen. 'Iodine is needed to make thyroxine, a hormone that controls our metabolism. A sluggish metabolism can make us feel tired.'
Helen continues: 'Unfortunately, many of us aren’t getting enough iodine – in fact, 12% of women and 8% of men aged 19-64 have really low intakes. Therefore, avoid a deficiency by including iodine-rich foods in your diet, such as milk and dairy, fish, shellfish, some iodine-fortified plant-based milks, eggs, meat and poultry.'
To boost your energy... Sip a glass of milk or a latte. Fish and seaweed are also good sources of iodine so treat yourself to sushi.
Various eating plans – such as the keto diet (opens in new tab) – avoid carbs, yet carbs are a valuable energy source. Helen explains: 'Carbs are an important fuel for your brain and body, but it’s important to choose the right types. Choose wholegrains with a higher fibre content and a lower glycaemic index, such as wholegrain museli, wholemeal bread, brown rice, pasta [see below] and ancient grains like quinoa and buckwheat. These release energy slowly and keep your gut microbes healthy, too.'
A word of warning, though. Helen advises that we 'keep an eye on your portions, because eating too much can make you feel sleepy. Save your carb-loaded meals for the evening.'
To boost your energy... Substitute rice for ancient grains. Quinoa is easy to cook (opens in new tab) when you know how and can be used in risottos, salads and porridge.
Nuts are brilliant foods that boost energy. Yes they're often high in fat but your body will thank you for eating nuts over an equally fatty chocolate bar. 'Like oily fish, nuts – such as almonds, walnuts, cashews and so on – contain fatty acids which can enter chemical reactions within the body and be used to produce energy,' explains Rhiannon. They are also high in filling protein. 'Opt for the unsalted varieties to prevent excessive salt intake,' she advises.
To boost your energy... munch on a handful as a snack. This will prevent you reaching for sweet treats, which will create a brief flurry of energy and then a sugar crash. You can also add nuts to a salad to make it more substantial or include nuts in a curry, like in Joe Wicks' halloumi and cashew nut curry (opens in new tab).
Helen recommends pulses as being particularly good for a slow release of energy – and we wholeheartedly agree with her. 'That's all tinned or dried beans, peas and lentils. These are great to add to your diet because they are high in protein and fibre,' she says. She suggests vegetarian and vegan-friendly beans, lentils, chickpeas and nuts.
Helen adds: 'Not overloading on carbs is your front line of defence against the afternoon slump. Plus, pulses are one of the few foods to be classed as both a vegetable and a protein, helping you on your way to your 5-a-day, too.'
14. Wholegrain and wholewheat pasta
While it's tempting to reach for white pasta, the wholewheat options available today are better than ever and – trust us – better for you. 'Wholegrain pasta has a lower GI index, which means it's a great source of energy that's released slowly,' says Rhiannon. 'In addition, wholegrain pasta has more fibre, which is beneficial for your gut.'
To boost your energy... Swap white pasta for the wholegrain or wholewheat variety. It's a little nuttier and chewier – and takes slightly longer to cook – but you'll notice a difference in your energy levels.
Love it or loathe it – there are plenty of health benefits to Marmite (opens in new tab). We love it at Good to Know, and Healthspan's (opens in new tab) head of nutrition Rob Hobson is a big fan: 'It's a brilliant source of vitamin B12 for people who don’t eat much (or any) meat or dairy.'
To boost your energy... Spread Marmite on wholemeal toast for breakfast or for an evening snack, use it as a glaze on roast chicken, or add a couple of teaspoon to bolognese for that extra umami flavour.
16. Energy balls
Filled with good-for-you fats and natural unrefined ingredients, as the name suggests these are great foods to boost energy . They are especially beneficial before a power walk or workout.
To boost your energy... Ditch the cakes and biscuits for a sweet yet healthy snack such as these homemade energy balls (opens in new tab).
It's not a food but it's essential. So often disregarded, just one glass of water can make a difference to how tired you feel. Helen explains that 'even slight dehydration can leave you feeling worn out. Drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day can help keep your mind and body alert.' European recommendations suggest 1.6L of fluid per day for women (about 8 x 200ml glasses) on top of the water provided by food you eat.
To boost your energy... Helen recommends that you drink tap, bottled, fizzy, hot and cold water, herbal teas, fruit juice, skimmed and semi-skimmed milk. They all count, she says.
18. Dark chocolate
Yes, dark chocolate is good for you (opens in new tab) – as long as you opt for one with more than 70% cocoa solids, which has slightly less sugar than milk chocolate. Rob says: 'Just a couple of squares can give you a quick sugar boost to pick you up. In addition, cocoa is a rich source of magnesium, which the body needs to help convert food into energy.'
To boost your energy... Grate 70% cocoa dark chocolate into porridge in the morning, or onto yogurt to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Leeks are a source of B vitamins and iron as well as prebiotics. 'These act as food for the bacteria in our gut,' says Emma. 'Research suggests that by supporting the health of your gut through the use of prebiotics, you could improve your sleeping pattern.' And good sleep means more energy.
To boost your energy... Follow this guide on how to cook leeks (opens in new tab) to get the best out of this nutritious vegetable.
20. Nut milk
There's a plethora of nut or non-dairy milk available these day, so take full advantage of what it has to offer. Rob tells us that all nuts are rich in magnesium, and nut milks are also a good source. Too little magnesium and you may feel fatigued and weak. You may also suffer from constipation, insomnia and muscle cramps.
To boost your energy... 'Use nut milk to create magnesium-packed breakfast smoothies,' suggests Rob.
If you want to eat a lunch that keeps on giving you energy then go for lentils. They may be humble but they're a powerhouse of nutrition. Fiona explains: 'A brilliant source of soluble fibre for slow and steady glucose release, lentils are also rich in those energy stars – B vitamins, iron and magnesium. They provide both complex carbs (the best sort for sustained energy) and protein, as well as manganese, potassium, zinc and molybdenum – a trace element used for energy production in cells.'
Try... To learn how to cook lentils (opens in new tab), then experiment with different types: red lentils for soups (opens in new tab) and dips; green or brown for dhal; and Puy as an accompaniment to fish or meat (opens in new tab).
And the worst foods for energy...
In addition, aside from eating regularly to avoid low blood sugar levels and that feeling of being 'hangry' Helen recommends avoiding the following energy-depleting food and drinks:
- Sugary foods (opens in new tab) like chocolate, cakes, doughnuts and biscuits. For instance, they will rapidly boost your blood sugar levels, but the resulting energy burst will be short-lived. Go for healthier choices, which will give you a longer-lasting source of energy. Try fruit, high-fibre oatcakes, low-fat yogurt and nuts.
- Caffeine-containing food and drinks. While coffee and tea have their place as natural stimulants, don’t rely on endless cups to keep you buzzing through the day. If you're feeling wired and tired, these drinks may be contributing to your problem. Be aware of how much you’re consuming and avoid caffeine long before you plan to go to sleep – it stays in our system for around 5-6 hours.
- Alcohol. It can be tempting to use alcohol to wind down after a long day, but it’s important to stick to the recommended limits of 14 units a week – for both men and women. Too much alcohol can rob your body of essential micronutrients, impact on the quality of your sleep, and have a profound effect on how you feel and your overall energy levels.
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Debra Waters is an experienced online editor and lifestyle writer with a focus on health, wellbeing, beauty, food and parenting. She currently writes for Goodto and Woman&Home, and print publications Woman, Woman’s Own and Woman’s Weekly. Previously, Debra was digital food editor at delicious magazine and MSN. She’s written for M&S Food, Great British Chefs, loveFOOD, What to Expect, Everyday Health and Time Out, and has had articles published in The Telegraph and The Big Issue.
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