Being low on energy and feeling fatigued has become be the norm for many of us, while trying to meet the demands of work and family life.
It's easy to resort to coffee, high sugar energy bars or sugary drinks for an energy “lift”. This may be coupled with vitamins, shakes or frizzy drinks that promise a "magic" cure.
How is energy produced?
Essentially, physical energy is what we get from burning fuel. The body’s main fuel source is food, which is converted to energy. The three main nutrients in food (fat, carbohydrate and protein) all provide varying amounts of energy.
In South Africa, the energy contained in food is measured in kilojoules. The body uses the following kinds of energy to support metabolic functions:
- Thermal energy (the energy needed to regulate body temperature)
- Mechanical energy (enables us to move)
- Electrical energy (the energy needed to conduct various nerve impulses, as well as cell signalling to the brain)
- Chemical energy (stored in the bonds of chemical compounds)
What foods should we be eating for energy?
All food provides energy, but the quality of this energy is what really matters most. Refined carbohydrates (white flour products such as breads, baked goods, sugary drinks, sweets and chocolates) provide a very quick release of energy. This results in a spike in blood sugar levels, followed by a dip. Thus, these foods end up leaving us with low energy, making us want to eat more.
The preferred quality of energy is derived from wholegrain carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes, rolled oats, heavy health breads, high fibre breakfast cereals, barley, corn, wild/brown rice, pearl wheat, quinoa, bulgur wheat, whole-wheat couscous, and all types of fresh fruits and vegetables). These foods cause a slower rise in blood glucose levels and a slower release of energy that will leave you satisfied and with a constant supply of sustained energy to last you throughout the day.
There are other things you can do to improve your energy levels:
1. Improve your sleep
There is substantial research that indicates that a disruption of sleep patterns and the circadian rhythms (internal body clock) can significantly affect our energy levels during the day. The excessive intake of foods high in sugar and white flour affects blood glucose and consequent serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in sleep regulation. Aim for seven hours of quality sleep per night.
2. Drink enough water
Water is essential for transporting nutrients throughout the body and enabling the liver to detoxify and eliminate waste products from the body. An inadequate intake of water can result in fatigue and lethargy. A rough guideline is to consume 250ml per day for every 10 kilograms of body weight (e.g. an 80kg individual should consume two litres of water per day – and even more when exercising).
3. Eat smaller, more frequent meals
Eating portion-controlled amounts of food every four hours will assist with a more constant supply of energy to the body. Ensure that these foods are high in fibre and low in sugar.
4. Exercise regularly
Physical activity is not only beneficial for cardiovascular health, but also results in a release of endorphins. Endorphins are responsible for that post-workout "high" that leaves you feeling energetic despite the exercise you've just done. Regular physical activity removes the stress and emotional tiredness we experience from sitting at a desk all day.
5. Incorporate fruits and vegetables
The more colourful the fruits and vegetables, the better for your health and energy levels. Fruits and vegetables contain varying amounts of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients, which are all key to maintaining energy levels.
Vegetables assist with improving energy levels by regulating blood glucose levels (avoiding the spikes and lows in blood glucose levels) for a more sustained amount of energy. Aim to eat the rainbow on your plate (the more colours the better).
6. Limit your alcohol intake
Alcohol will leave you feeling lethargic and down on energy after drinking too much. If you do want to drink, stick to the daily limit of two units of alcohol per day for men and one for women.
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