In my last nutrition feature I talked about the importance of sleep and discussed dietary/lifestyle strategies for achieving it. The piece generated some good discussion in the comments section so if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, be sure to drop by to take advantage of that information as well.
One of the most common concerns I encounter in my nutrition practice is low energy levels and fatigue. Whether it’s difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, the classic afternoon slump, crashing early evening or low energy levels persisting throughout the day, fatigue can strongly impact our work productivity, mood, motivation and the quality of our interactions with others.
Along with regular exercise, managing stress levels and obtaining a proper night’s rest, eating the right foods at the right time can go a long way to avoiding common energy drains and restoring balance.
1. Eat Breakfast (or bring it with you) — after prolonged sleep, breaking our fast (breakfast) helps kick start metabolism and promote mental acuity. It supplies us with the energy we need to begin our day and prevents hunger from striking at a time when we are more apt to make poor dietary choices.
If lack of time or appetite is a factor, (or if you are in a long-standing habit of not eating breakfast), consider starting small and simple: a handful of nuts and seeds; a wedge of cheese; plain yogurt; a wholesome granola bar; a hard-boiled egg or two tablespoons of peanut butter — it doesn’t get much easier than that — and the difference between any of these simple choices and no food in the morning can be significant in terms of mood, alertness and concentration. Start small with what is tolerable for you (or the individual you are supporting), and build slowly from there. Over time, you can expand your repertoire — smoothies are another great option for reluctant breakfast eaters.
2. Include protein not only at mealtime but also when snacking — it requires more work for our bodies to break down protein and fat than carbohydrates. By combining a quality carbohydrate (example: vegetable/fruit/whole grain of choice) with a protein and/or fat (example: nut or seed butter, guacamole, hummus, cheese, milk, yogurt) it slows down the rapid conversion of the carbohydrate to sugar, helping us feel fuller longer and preventing jags in insulin levels. By stabilizing blood sugar in this way, we also help supply a smooth and steady release of energy over time rather than a quick burst. This dietary strategy is not only important at meal time but also, critically, when snacking during long stretches of time between meals — for example the gap after lunch (around 1 pm) and dinner (around 7 pm or later).
3. Plan ahead to avoid large time gaps between food consumption — eating irregularly or skipping meals can play havoc with blood sugar levels leaving us feeling weak, shaky and irritable. When we wait too long to eat, our bodies naturally cue us in to consume the quickest form of energy available which is almost always those low nourishment carbohydrates (sweets and the whole gamut of refined ‘bready things”) which give us a quick boost of energy but almost as quickly leave us feeling hungry, tired and sluggish all over again (the sugar crash). If you know it’s going to be a busy day, or one spent mostly on the road, plan ahead for some simple snack options that include those vital proteins and/or fats in tandem with quality carbohydrates and experiment with different options and time frames to see what works best for you. Something as simple as a handful of trail mix can make all the difference. Orchard Valley Harvest has a line of portioned grab-and-go snacks of this nature that I carry along when we travel.
Frequency and timing of food intake will vary according to a number of variables — age, stage of life, activity levels and the type/amount of food consumed throughout the day (6 grams of protein at lunch will not have the same staying power as 30 grams, for example). As a very general guideline, eating every three hour to four hours for most adults (more frequently for children) can help keep blood sugar levels stable and mood balanced.
4. Make sure you’re well hydrated — we’re all familiar with the mid-afternoon slump that has our eyes watering, heads bobbing and minds fogging over. The overwhelming desire is to curl up and take a nap (which is not always possible, practical or desirable).
Eating well-timed meals/snacks that include the vital protein/fat element will go a long way to preventing this scenario but another critical component is staying hydrated. If you’re having one of those afternoons, and we all do, one of the very best remedies is to pour yourself a tall glass of water and gently stretch your body as you sip it (if you have the option of going outside, even momentarily, to get some fresh air or walk around the block, that can also be powerfully helpful). The whole process will only take about 10 minutes but will do your body and mind immeasurable good.
Water is the hub of all biochemical processes in the body and even mild dehydration (1-5% loss of body water) has been shown to reduce efficiency and performance and is one of the most common causes of daytime fatigue.
How much water — water needs fluctuate depending on a number of factors: ambient temperature, activity levels, diet and general health. Consumption of diuretics, such as caffeine and alcohol, increase urinary output requiring more water consumption to make up for this loss. The Mayo Clinic estimates that the average adult produces 6.3 cups (about 1.5 litres) of urine a day plus an additional 4 cups of water through breathing, sweating and bowel excretion. Food generally accounts for 20% of water intake. By this standard, we should aim for a minimum of 8 cups of water per day (or 2 litres) to replenish lost fluids in addition to food sources (fresh fruits and vegetables are a particularly good source of water).
Ideas for enhancing taste — some delicious ways of enlivening the taste of water include adding fresh herbs, edible flowers, fruit and vegetables to your beverages. Some choices include: sliced cucumber, lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, berries, pomegranate, mint, thyme, rosemary and lavender. You can also enjoy herbal teas and sparkling water or add a splash of your favorite unsweetened fruit juice to water. Smoothies are another delicious way to stay hydrated (and nourished). Have fun experimenting and coming up with your own combinations.
5. Have your vitamin/mineral levels checked – sometimes lack of energy is attributable to certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies. The most common deficiency implicated in fatigue is iron (especially for menstruating women – vegetarians and vegans are at higher risk). Iron deficiency, even in the absence of anemia, can cause fatigue, lethargy and difficulty concentrating and is certainly worth investigating. Another deficiency that arises on occasion is B12 (vegans and those who do not absorb B12 well are at higher risk). You can have your vitamin and mineral levels tested through your health care practitioner.
If you are living with persistent low energy levels, be sure to follow-up with your health care practitioner. Ongoing fatigue may be indicative of other health concerns.
The information in this post is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician or other health care professional directly before beginning or changing a course of health treatment.