Do you experience fluctuating energy levels through the day? How often do you, when you feel in a bit of a slump, reach for a sugary snack or a quick caffeine fix – or combine the two in the form of a chocolate bar?
Not all reasons for poor energy levels are attributable to food, and although diet can help some of them, it can’t be taken in isolation. For example, eating at the wrong time of day, or taking in too much caffeine, may affect your sleep, but poor sleep WILL cause tiredness! Other non-dietary factors may include: stress, environmental factors (noise, light etc), your general health, your activity levels and also your personal ‘body clock’. Generally speaking, the healthier you are the more energy you will have more consistently, and a major factor in wellbeing is eating well. This means that by following normal healthy-eating guidelines, you are already well on your way to stabilising your energy levels.
RULES OF THUMB for balancing your diet include:
- Five a day – eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day
- Five food groups – include items from each of:
- meat (or pulses for vegetarians)
- Eat as wide a variety of food as possible – in particular include:
- Different parts of a plant – root, leaf, fruit, seed etc.
- Different colours
- Eat regularly – don’t allow too long between meals, as your blood sugar level will drop, encouraging you to eat more than you need, and in particular giving rise to cravings for sugary snacks.
- Drink plenty of water.
A healthy balanced has to include the macronutrients (fat, carbohydate and protein), the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and water. While we can manage without food for 10 days or more, we will be dead after only three days without water. More importantly, even mild dehydration causes a number of problems – including fatigue and loss of concentration. So the first quick tip for managing your energy is to make sure you always drink plenty of WATER.
The human body is composed of up to 70% water, and it is needed by every cell. There is fluid inside and between all cells, and is used in all body processes. We are constantly losing water through our skin (even when we’re not aware of sweating), every time we breathe out, and of course in urine. So we need to be constantly replacing it.
How much water do we need? Approximately two litres a day for a healthy adult. Some of our fluid requirement can be met through food (especially fruit) but mainly needs to be drunk. Although some sources claim that caffeine is so dehydrating that for every cup of coffee drunk, an additional cup of water (on top of the 2 litres) is needed, a more realistic approach is simply to exclude caffeinated drinks from the 2L total. Therefore, you need to drink about 8 standard mugs or equivalent of liquid per day (not including tea, coffee, caffeinated soft drinks etc). try fruit juice or sugar-free squash, fruit or herbal teas. Ideally at least some of it should be pure water, especially first thing in the morning. If your current daily intake is significantly below this level, it is best to increase your consumption gradually over a period of two or three weeks to allow your body (and in particular your bladder) to adjust gently.
One of the benefits of a well-hydrated body is the efficient function of the digestive system, meaning waste is eliminated more quickly and effectively, removing the potential for toxic build-up, which naturally saps your energy.
Another important aspect of maintaining your healthy digestive system is
to ensure you have enough FIBRE in your diet. Dietary fibre is the term used to describe carbohydrates that humans can’t digest. By maintaining
good digestive processes (elimination of waste) we can help release good energy levels. Sluggish digestive processes cause loss of energy – fatigue, and general ‘unwellness’. Overactive processes contribute to dehydration. In addition, looking after your digestive
tract can help prevent certain cancers (eg colon). Recommended intake is 30g per day, and good sources include:
- Pulses (beans, lentils and peas),
- fresh and dried fruits – particularly if the skins are eaten
- Vegetables – particularly if the skins are eaten
- Nuts and seeds
- Wholemeal and granary breads
- Jacket potatoes
- Wholegrain breakfast cereals
- Wholemeal pasta and brown rice
The main source of energy in our diet is carbohydrate. Although the body can process both protein and fat to produce glucose (the chemical we need for energy) it is more efficient to get it from carbohydrate. There are two main types of carbohydrate – simple and complex. They are classified according to the chemical structure, and therefore how much processing is needed in the body to create glucose. Simple carbohydrates are also known as sugars, and include sucrose (what we commonly refer to as sugar), lactose (from milk), fructose (from fruit) and several others. Complex carbohydrate is also known as starch (plant-based) or glycogen (animal-based). It requires much more processing to create usable glucose.
The level of available glucose in the bloodstream is constantly monitored, and when this blood sugar level gets too high or too low, certain processes are activated to correct the balance. When the level is too low, we feel tired and/or hungry, sending a signal to add more fuel. When the level gets too high, the body releases insulin to reduce the level. When we eat food high in simple carbohydrates (sugars), our blood glucose level can rise rapidly, triggering this response, which then causes a corresponding sharp decrease in the level, triggering another bout of hunger / fatigue. Complex carbohydrate on the other hand, because it requires more processing, is released more slowly into the blood stream, and therefore tends to avoid the spikes in blood sugar that trigger the body to bring it down, with the subsequent ‘slump’ and the danger of getting caught in a vicious circle.
To manage your energy levels more effectively, then, it is better to eat complex carbohydrates with their slow release. Good sources include:
- Wholegrains (e.g. rice, wholemeal pasta, wholemeal bread, muesli)
- Starchy vegetables (e.g. potato, sweet potato, beetroot, squash)
- Pulses (peas, beans, lentils)
But what about those times when you really want a quick pick-me-up? Rather than just reach for something full of sugar (cake, chocolate etc) try COMBINING SIMPLE and COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATES. Many traditional foods do exactly that, and without realising it, that is a major element in their enduring popularity. For example, porridge contains milk (lactose – simple) and oats (starch – complex). Mix a fruit high in fructose (such as ripe strawberries) with a starchier companion (such as a banana). Macaroni cheese or pizza both combine a wheat-based element with a milk-based element. Cereal bars often contain dried fruit, providing fructose alongside the starch from the grains (watch out for the amount of sugar added though). The combination of simple and complex carbs means that you get the ‘quick hit’ of the simple form, broken down into glucose quickly, and then the slow release follows on, giving you a steadier supply of energy over a period of time.
Understanding how we can control the way we feel is a step closer to developing our personal resilience. If we can be more in control, we can manage our health and wellbeing and increase our ability to perform under pressure.
Veronica Pullen “The Social Marketing Queen”, podcast No 2, is a great example of managing your own energy when limited by physical constraints.