Is it a struggle to peel yourself out of bed in the mornings and start your day? Do you feel yourself sinking into an afternoon slump shortly after lunch? Are you too low-energy to get to the gym, keep commitments with your friends, or cross things off your to-do list? Despite our best efforts, it sometimes seems that we quickly burn out and spend much of our days fighting fatigue.
If you're constantly tired, your diet might be to blame. It's no mystery the food we eat is what fuels us to get through the day, but we don't always give our bodies what they need. In addition to eating foods that contribute to energy slumps and premature burnout, we're often missing out on the right nutritious elements to sustain our energy throughout the day. To find out more, we reached out to two nutritionists to determine exactly what foods are missing from our diets when we find ourselves dozing off or totally drained before the end of the day.
Keep scrolling to see the food they recommend for fueling your body each day from start to finish.
First Thing in the Morning
"Always start the day with a protein-based breakfast, as the protein helps to give you sustained energy through-out the day," advises Dana James MS, CNS, CDN, BANT, AADP, and founder of Food Coach NYC and L.A. "That means skipping the cereal, oatmeal, and avocado toast for breakfast." Instead, she offers up protein-packed options that will sustain you as the day wears on. "The three best choices are two organic eggs with baby tomatoes, a blueberry smoothie made with a plant-based protein powder, and almond milk or a chia seed pudding topped with raspberries."
Meryl Pritchard, the founder of Kore Kitchen, also suggests the smoothie route for the first thing in the morning. "At Kore Kitchen, we always serve a superfood smoothie for breakfast," she says. "The reason for this is that after sleeping for eight hours, your body's digestive system isn't up and running first thing in the morning—so dumping a bunch of food in there is going to take your energy away since it will take such a long time to digest." So skip the stack of pancakes that will have you ready to go back to bed, and start with nutrients your body will actually absorb.
"A smoothie is already predigested, meaning your body doesn't have to do as much work to break it down and assimilate the nutrients," Pritchard says. "This allows you to keep all of your energy and start your day off on the right foot!" But before you even begin with your smoothie, Pritchard spills her secret to successfully beginning your day. "Pro-tip: Start your morning with warm water and lemon," she says. "This helps kick-start your digestion so that the juices are already flowing when you have your first bite.
It also helps alkalize your system first thing in the morning, and it boosts immunity."
To Get Over an Afternoon Slump
When it comes to avoiding that dreaded afternoon slump, James says to remember that you're looking for sustained energy, not a quick sugar hit. "Half an avocado dusted in sea salt keeps you satiated for hours and your energy stable," she says. "A pear dipped in tahini (sesame seed butter) does the same thing. Brazil nuts with coconut flakes and goji berries help support the thyroid function for a faster metabolism." For something a bit lighter, "a green vegetable juice is exceptionally vitalizing." But steer clear of pre-packaged snacks that offer an instant hit of sugar and carbs.
At Kore Kitchen, Pritchard notes that afternoon snacks are designed to give more of an energy boost than to solve a hunger craving. "We like using things like chia pudding, which is almost the perfect snack for the afternoon because chia is one of the best foods for sustained energy," she says. "The Mayan culture used to use chia as their main food source when going into battle. Since it has a hydrophilic property to it, it can absorb 10 to 12 times its weight in water. This helps keep you hydrated and retains electrolytes, making it a great food, especially for athletes!" Pritchard strongly endorses superfoods in general, listing maca and cacao and two other favorites that can give a potent boost of energy.
"You can make quick easy energy balls using all of these superfoods, almond butter, and oats," she says. "Other snacks we use include edamame, raw vegan almond butter cups with cacao, plantain chips and guacamole, or crudites and hummus, or bean-free cashew dip."
Before a Workout
Before any demanding physical activity, it's important you have the fuel to get you through it, but also that you haven't eaten anything that might weigh or slow you down. Pritchard recommends staying away from heavier nuts and fats pre-workout, and save them for after the job is done. "Pre-workout I try to eat something that my system can utilize as energy, which means easily digestible carbohydrates," she says. "Fruit is a great snack that's easy to digest and burn for fuel. Berries like wild organic blueberries are high in antioxidants and easy to snack on, dates are a natural form of sugar and have fiber in them—athletes will use dates as a natural workout fuel or blend them in water to make "datorade" an easy, natural, energy-drink alternative to Gatorade." If you turn to bananas for an energy boost, Pritchard says to make sure you choose one that's fully ripe and has brown spots.
"This means that the chlorophyll has broken down within the fruit and the antioxidant level has risen. It's a lot easier to digest."
James notes that your optimum pre-workout snack depends on the workout. "If you're doing high-intensity interval training, you want something that quickly converts to energy like dried fruit—a handful of apricots is best," she says. "However, if you want to lose body fat and are okay with slightly lower performance levels, then an apple or piece of fruit instead, as the sugar is less so that the body is forced to use body fat not the glucose from the dried fruit. If you're weight training, then incorporating a protein-based smoothie into your diet can be helpful."
For Sustained Energy Throughout the Day
James says the key to sustained energy throughout the day is keeping your blood sugar levels stable. She outlines an ideal day beginning with a green smoothie made with plant protein, almond milk, pineapple, and spinach for breakfast, a wild arugula salad with grated raw carrots and raw beets with pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, and organic chicken for lunch, and a serving of clementines and brazil nuts as an afternoon snack. Come dinner, opt for a pan-seared lemon sole with pesto served with a warmed roasted vegetable salad and half a pink grapefruit for dessert.
Pritchard agrees to stick to whole foods if you want to maintain healthy energy levels from morning to night. "The aforementioned chia seed is my number-one rec, but also simply whole foods," she says. "When you consume foods that are in their whole form versus their processed counterpart, your body has to spend less time and energy trying to break it down and knows exactly what to do with it. This is the easiest way to start increasing your energy." You can also supplement your diet with vitamins and by incorporating the essential nutrients through powders.
What it all comes down to, with both diet and practice, is keeping it simple. "Staying hydrated and getting enough sleep will also help with your energy levels," Pritchard says. "Sometimes it's the simplest things that will make the biggest difference!"
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