Advice from the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging about what to eat and what to avoid for maximum energy potential
This article originally appeared in the Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, a monthly publication of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Find more expert guidance on healthy cooking, eating, and living here.
A new year is upon us, and it’s going to take plenty of energy to make good on all those resolutions! If you’re looking for more energy to be healthy and active, or simply to feel your best—your plate is the perfect place to start.
What Powers Our Bodies? “The food you eat supplies your body’s energy needs,” says Sai Krupa Das, PhD, a scientist on the Energy Metabolism Team at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts (HNRCA).
Macronutrients: Foods (and most beverages) contain chemical energy in the form of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. When you eat, digestion breaks down these macronutrients into smaller molecules that are absorbed from your digestive system into your body. Once absorbed, these molecules enter cells and—through a multi-step process—are transformed into metabolic energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) or stored as fatty acids. These are the fuels we use to maintain our bodies and move about the world.
Micronutrients: Foods also provide essential vitamins and minerals—referred to as micronutrients. “Micronutrients serve as important agents for harvesting energy from foods,” says Das. Magnesium, thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), biotin (vitamin B7), vitamin C, and coenzyme Q10 are required for the chemical reactions that produce ATP. Other micronutrients are necessary for energy in different ways. Iodine is needed to form thyroid hormones that play an important role in metabolism. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia, which causes fatigue and weakness. Deficiency of vitamin B12 can lead to megaloblastic anemia, which also causes fatigue. A healthy dietary pattern supplies all of these micronutrients in adequate amounts.
In addition to vitamins and minerals, thousands of other bioactive compounds have been documented in food, and there may be thousands more. The functions of these more recently discovered compounds are not yet fully understood.
Without adequate intake of nutrients, our metabolism may not perform at its peak, and we may feel less energetic. “Making sure the foods we eat are optimal in composition is the healthiest way to create sustained energy for our bodies,” says Das.
What to Eat. A healthy dietary pattern is the best way to optimize energy production and, at the same time, overall health and well-being. This means following a diet that includes:
- Micronutrients from minimally processed fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, beans/lentils, whole grains, fish, and dairy products. Eating a wide variety of these foods helps ensure adequate intake of micronutrients and other bioactive compounds to support metabolism and health. (These foods are also healthy sources of carbohydrates, fats, and protein.)
- Modest protein from plant sources like legumes and nuts as well as healthy animal sources like seafood, yogurt, and possibly cheese. Eggs, poultry, and red meat (unprocessed) in moderation are also reasonable.
- Plenty of unsaturated fats from sources like plant oils, nuts/seeds, fruits (like avocado and olives), and fish.
Dietary supplements should not be necessary if you are consuming a healthy dietary pattern. If you had gastric or intestinal surgery, have strict dietary restrictions (as from a food allergy, genetic condition, or vegan lifestyle), or have a malabsorptive disorder (like celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease), ask your healthcare provider if supplements are necessary for you.
What to Avoid. Some foods and beverages may seem to offer a short-term energy boost but are not good for overall energy or health in the long run. Refined carbohydrate foods are a prime example. Foods like sweets, cereals, and starches made with white flour and/or added sugars are rapidly digested, sending the sugar glucose pouring into the bloodstream. While glucose is one of the body’s preferred energy sources, the rapid influx of sugar causes insulin levels to rise quickly to move the glucose molecules out of the blood. This can lead to a sudden drop in blood glucose that leaves us feeling tired. Diets high in refined carbohydrates are associated with a whole host of health problems. For sustained energy (and other proven health benefits) get your carbohydrates from less processed, micronutrient- and fiber-rich foods, such as fruits, beans, whole grains, and vegetables. These foods contain fully or partially intact cellular structure which slows digestion, so the blood sugar that provides our cells with an energy source is absorbed slowly and evenly.
Energy and sports drinks are heavily advertised to boost energy levels. Often high in added sugars, caffeine, and other stimulants, these products offer a quick fix, but are not a healthy option for sustained energy, Das cautions. “The ingredients in these products can negatively impact levels of insulin and other hormones that affect appetite, sleep patterns, and other factors that contribute to overall energy,” she says. These same concerns apply to other sugar-sweetened, caffeinated beverages. Hydrating (with water and non-sugar-sweetened beverages) is important to avoid dehydration-induced fatigue, but sports and energy drinks are generally not necessary or advisable. (Low sugar sports drinks, fortified with salt and minerals, can be useful during high levels of sports performance in hot conditions.)
Lifestyle Tips:In addition to consuming a healthy dietary pattern and limiting or avoiding “energy busters” like refined carbs and sports and energy drinks, it’s critical to be physically active, drink adequate amounts of water, get sufficient sleep, and reduce stress to optimize your energy levels.
So, take time this year to improve your dietary and other lifestyle choices—and you’ll have plenty of energy to reach your other goals!
To ensure plenty of energy to meet your goals for the year ahead, try these tips:
- Make healthy dietary choices. Eat a variety of minimally processed foods to give your metabolism everything it needs to help you stay energetic all day long.
- Avoid refined carbs. Foods made with refined flours and added sugars may give you a quick energy boost but throw off your energy metabolism.
- Avoid energy drinks and supplements. Energy drinks are a short-term fix that can lead to negative health consequences. “Energy boosting” dietary supplements are unproven (and unnecessary for those with healthy dietary intake).
- Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water and other unsweetened beverages.
- Move more. Physical activity can energize our bodies and minds.
- Rest and relax. Look for ways to reduce stress and make sure you are getting adequate sleep.