You can turn to your fridge or pantry to perk up and fight fatigue.
"An energizing food is one that provides sustained energy, either on its own or in a food pairing. This sustained energy can be through protein, fiber and/or healthy fats," Amy Gorin, RDN, a plant-based registered dietitian and owner of Plant-Based Eats in Stamford, Connecticut tells LIVESTRONG.com.
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How Do We Get Energy From Food?
Many people wonder exactly how we get energy from food. Calories are a measure of energy, so technically, all food gives us energy. But, because of their nutritional profiles, different foods will affect energy levels differently.
Carbohydrates and Energy
Carbohydrates are one of the three main macronutrients your body needs, and they give you energy the fastest, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. There are two types of carbs — simple and complex — and they each affect energy levels in a distinct way.
Simple carbs have a small molecular structure, so they're digested fast and lead to a quick rise in blood sugar, which results in a jolt of energy, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Because the spike occurs so quickly, you may notice that your energy is depleted shortly after eating these foods. Simple carbs are found in products like white bread and pasta, baked goods and sugary cereals.
Complex carbs have a more "complex" chemical structure, and they're digested slowly and have a less significant effect on blood sugar levels, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Foods high in complex carbs are known to provide long-lasting energy.
Energy and ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate)
The digestion process converts protein, carbs and fat into a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), according to the LibreText Libraries. Adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, acts as a source of energy for your cells.
Your body uses ATP to fuel the chemical reactions required for proper cellular functioning. It is also found in animal and plant cells, and there are many food sources of ATP.
Many people drink caffeine in coffee, tea, energy drinks and other beverages for its energy-enhancing effects. Caffeine, which is a stimulant, has been linked to reducing fatigue and improving alertness, per May 2020 research in Advances in Neurology and Psychiatry.
While caffeine works directly on the brain to make you more focused and alert, it's important to be careful where you're getting it from, and not to take in too much. Caffeinated energy drinks can often be high in sugar, which can lead to other health problems like obesity and type 2 diabetes, per November 2018 research in Nutrients.
According to the FDA, 400 milligrams of caffeine per day is generally considered safe.
Foods That Give You Energy
Foods that are rich in complex carbs can provide the body with stable energy. Eating food sources of ATP can also result in higher energy levels, and taking in caffeine may help you feel more alert.
More important than anything is that you eat a well-rounded diet complete with a diverse nutritional profile, as many nutrients contribute to energy levels. Aim for foods with no added sugar (or those that contain a low amount of added sugar).
Here, we share some of our favorite delicious foods that give you energy. These can help you build meals and snacks that pack in the nutrition — and keep you going strong all day.
Rather than going for egg whites, eat the entire egg. "The yolk is where most of the vitamins and minerals are found," she says.
In addition to their trifecta of plant-based protein, fiber and healthy fats (such as omega-3s), nuts are also mentally energizing.
According to a December 2014 study in The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, eating walnuts may improve performance on cognitive function tests for memory, concentration and information processing speed in adults. Add them to grain-based salads, as a yogurt topper or toss them into a snack mix.
Protein and fat are nutrients that are used to make ATP, according to April 2010 research in Nature Education. Because nuts are high in both, they are considered a food source of ATP.
It may be the most basic substance out there, but sipping on H2O all day does the body and brain good.
In an April 2014 study in PLOS One, people who only drank about 34 ounces of water a day increased their intake to 84 ounces and felt less fatigue and sleepiness and more mental sharpness. The study was small — about 50 people — but it gives us even more reason to stay well-hydrated during the day.
"Quinoa is one of my favorite whole grains because it is packed with nutrients such as fiber, vitamins and complex carbs that provide sustainable energy," Melissa Mitri, RD, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
One cup of cooked quinoa also packs 8 grams of protein. "Protein provides more long-standing energy," she says.
5. Meat and Fish
Iron is an energy-supplying nutrient because it's a component of hemoglobin, a part of red blood cells that's responsible for ferrying oxygen to your tissues, per the National Institutes of Health.
Red meat tops the list of iron-rich foods and one 3-ounce cooked steak supplies about 26 percent of your daily value of iron.
Meat and fish also provide preformed ATP. When you eat meat and fish, the fatty acids and proteins are digested and absorbed. If your body requires an immediate source of energy, these nutrients are used to make ATP, helping to fuel your body, per the research in Nature Education.
When selecting meats and fish as a source of ATP, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recommends selecting poultry and fresh fish and avoiding fatty cuts of red meat that contain high levels of saturated fat.
Try these healthy red meat recipes for lunch this week.
To rev up your engine at lunch, reach for foods that supply blood sugar-friendly protein and fiber-rich carbohydrates. You can find all of that in chickpeas, which pack 5 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber per 1/2 cup.
Gorin likes them because the legumes supply plant-based iron, too. "Getting enough iron helps to prevent anemia, which can be energy-depleting," she says. Vitamin C boosts the absorption of iron, Gorin adds, so pair your chickpeas with vitamin C-rich foods like spinach.
7. Greek Yogurt
A perennial breakfast (or snack) favorite, "Greek yogurt has a perfect combination of protein and carbs for sustainable energy," Mitri says. A cup of plain, low-fat Greek yogurt provides 9 grams of carbs and an impressive 23 grams of protein for 166 calories.
However, flavored versions are packed with added sugar, so top yours with fresh or dried fruit to save on the added sweet stuff.
Matcha is green tea powder, Michalczyk says. "Matcha contains the compound L-theanine, which helps to promote a more relaxed alertness, rather than the caffeine jitters."
She points to a small, randomized, placebo-controlled trial published in May 2017 in Food Research International that found consuming matcha tea can improve attention and memory to a small extent compared to a placebo.
9. Coffee and Tea
No matter how you take your cuppa, it may help you get more exercise.
In a study of more than 7,500 women, those who sipped 1 to 2 cups of coffee per day were 17 percent more likely to meet recommended physical activity levels compared to those who drank less than 1 cup, while those who drank more than 1 cup of tea per day were 13 to 26 percent more likely to meet the recommendations, per September 2018 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Brew sippers report feeling less tired and having more energy.
To kickstart your day high on energy, opt for a bowl of oats.
"Oats provide fueling fiber," Gorin says. One cup of oatmeal cooked in water gives you 166 calories, 6 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber. For more staying power, Gorin likes to add nut butter for healthy fats and protein as well as fruit for more fiber.
Fruit is one of the top foods that give you energy because they provide natural sugar and fiber, which slows down the blood sugar response for more lasting energy.
Wild blueberries are it for Gorin. "You get a more intense blueberry taste from them and they have significantly more antioxidants than traditional blueberries," she says.
12. Peppermint and Rosemary
Next time you're fighting through a midday slump, pour yourself a tall glass of water and stuff in a few fresh mint leaves. Or, for a dinner perk-up, add some rosemary to your water when you're cooking that chicken breast.
Peppermint and rosemary have been found to decrease drowsiness and grogginess, reports a November 2016 review in Scientia Pharmaceutica. Plus, peppermint improves mood, too.
Yep, bananas contain a good amount of carbs (27 grams per medium 'naner). But those are energy-revving carbs — there's a reason why it's a pre-run staple.
"Bananas may be one of the best fruits for energy. They contain a mix of complex carbs, potassium and vitamin B6, which can all boost your energy," Mitri says. A small May 2012 study in PLOS One found that eating bananas before or during exercise was a good way to fuel and support performance.
For one, radishes are hydrating — after all, they're 95 percent water. That makes them a perfectly perky mid-afternoon snack when you're feeling sluggish.
Gorin also likes the crunchy, slightly spicy veggie because they're a great vehicle for a refreshing (and protein-packed) Greek yogurt dip. A snack that combines both protein and carbohydrates is the best to carry you through the afternoon.
15. Olive Oil
This heart-healthy oil might not be energizing in itself, but it's a mainstay of healthy eating patterns. A small 2019 study in Nutrition found that truck drivers who ate foods like root veggies, eggs, dairy and olive oil (and less fast food and animal fat) experienced less sleepiness during the day compared to those who were following a Western-style approach to eating (characterized by fast food, processed meats and soft drinks).
Even if you're not driving a truck cross-country this afternoon, take this as a reason to grab a hearty salad with whole grains and chicken drizzled with olive oil.
16. Dark Leafy Greens
More salads, please. "Dark leafy greens, such as kale, spinach or collard greens, are wonderful energy-boosters," Mitri says.
These leafies are also rich sources of dietary nitrates, substances that your body converts into nitric oxide, which opens up blood vessels to boost blood flow and improve muscle function, suggests a May 2021 study in The Journal of Nutrition. Spinach also supplies iron, for a bigger energy-revving boost.
The sweet root veggie shares something in common with dark leafy greens: an abundance of nitrates.
A January 2018 review of nine articles in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded that drinking beetroot juice before short bouts of high-intensity exercise helps reduce muscle fatigue. It can't hurt to toss some beets into your next morning smoothie.
Tofu is another plant-based protein that's packed with iron. One cup of extra firm tofu contains 37 percent of the daily value for iron.
One symptom of iron deficiency anemia is fatigue. However, even if you don't have anemia, your energy levels may still benefit from eating more iron-rich foods, concludes an April 2018 study in BMJ Open.
Grab a handful of these nuts for a mid-morning power-up.
"Unlike many other plant-based proteins, pistachios are a complete plant protein, providing all nine essential amino acids," Gorin says. One serving (1 ounce or 49 kernels) has 159 calories and nearly 6 grams of protein, making them one of the highest-protein snack nuts, she adds.
20. Brazil Nuts
The Brazil nut might be the most neglected nut in the nut mix, but you'll want to pluck out this large, oblong nut.
Brazil nuts are packed with unsaturated fats that are good for your heart, fiber that's good for regularity as well as selenium, a powerhouse antioxidant. A small December 2019 study in Nutrire looked at what happens when adults eat the same amount of calories as pretzels or Brazil nuts. The researchers found that both snacks improved satiety, as well as anxiety, but only the Brazil nuts kept blood sugar and insulin levels steady. For you, that can translate into lasting energy rather than taking a ride on a blood sugar roller coaster.
- PLOS ONE: “Effects of Changes in Water Intake on Mood of High and Low Drinkers”
- The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging: “A cross sectional study of the association between walnut consumption and cognitive function among adult us populations represented in NHANES”
- The Journal of Nutrition: “Dietary Nitrate Intake is Positively Associated with Muscle Function in Men and Women Independent of Physical Activity Levels”
- PLOS ONE: “Bananas as an Energy Source during Exercise: A Metabolomics Approach”
- Nutrition: “Prudent diet associated with low sleepiness among short-haul truck drivers”
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: “Effects of beetroot juice supplementation on intermittent high-intensity exercise efforts”
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: “A Daily Cup of Tea or Coffee May Keep You Moving: Association Between Tea and Coffee Consumption and Physical Activity”
- National Institutes of Health: Iron
- BMJ Open: “Efficacy of iron supplementation on fatigue and physical capacity in non-anaemic iron-deficient adults: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials”
- Nutrire: “Brazil nut consumption promotes satiety without increasing blood glucose and insulin responses in healthy adults”
- Food Research International: “An intervention study on the effect of matcha tea, in drink and snack bar formats, on mood and cognitive performance”
- Scientia Pharmaceutica: “Influence of Fragrances on Human Psychophysiological Activity: With Special Reference to Human Electroencephalogrpahic Response”
- LibreText Libraries: Food Energy and ATP
- Advances in Neurology and Psychiatry:Caffeine, the most frequently consumed psychostimulant: a narrative review article
- Nutrients; Caffeine in the Diet: Country-Level Consumption and Guidelines
- Harvard T.H.Chan School of Public Health: Protein
- Nature: Dynamic Adaptation of Nutrient Utilization in Humans
- FSA: Spilling the Beans on Caffeine
- Sleep Foundation: Caffeine and Sleep