Feeling spent? The high-paced holiday scene can be exhausting. By January, it's sometimes hard to find enough energy to get through the long winter days.
Choosing the right foods at this time of year can make a big difference. While food isn't the only way to get a pick-me-up, what you eat provides you with important fuel to energize you hour after hour after hour.
Here are some steps that you can take to fuel your body and increase your energy throughout the day.
1. Eat breakfast. This meal sets you up for the whole day. It replenishes your body's energy supply after a nightlong fast, providing fuel for your brain as well as your muscles. You need that energy to stay mentally and physically alert and to enhance learning and physical performance. It's a critical meal for adults and children alike. Without breakfast, your body is running on empty.
Tip: For a quick breakfast pick-me-up, choose oatmeal with skim milk and a banana, whole grain toast with peanut butter or an egg and fresh fruit.
2. Don't diet. Eating too little or skipping meals are surefire ways to rob you of energy. You need to eat enough to sustain a high energy level.
3. Make time for lunch -- even if you're busy. Shut your office door, turn off the phone and spend a few minutes relaxing while you eat your lunch. Your afternoon will be easier and more productive as a result. Think of it as your personal time-out to regroup and get ready for the rest of the day.
4. Eat several small meals and/or snacks throughout the day. This routine helps keep your blood sugar level steady (you want to avoid a low blood sugar level, which is one of the common causes of afternoon fatigue). Skipping meals can have a negative effect on your mood and energy, while eating very large meals can make you sleepy. If you "forget" to eat because you get too busy, put a sticky note on your computer or the phone.
5. Don't eat a meal just before bed. A heavy meal takes longer to digest and, if you eat it late, you'll probably go to bed with a full stomach. And lying down with a full stomach encourages acids and gastric juices to flow up into the esophagus, causing uncomfortable heartburn that will definitely make sleep more challenging.
6. Eat complex carbohydrates. Carbohydrates found in whole grain breads and cereals, lentils, legumes and starchy vegetables provide high-octane fuel for your brain, muscles and body tissues. They're the fuel of choice since they're digested gradually and serve as a steady energy supply for body and brain.
Tip: For a carb-rich midmorning snack, have whole wheat crackers with low-fat cheese; make a smoothie with fresh fruit, yogurt and milk; or spread half a piece of pumpernickel bread with peanut butter.
7. Go easy on simple sugars. Sweets, candy and soft drinks may give you a quick boost of energy but this probably won't last for long.
Tip: For a more sustained energy boost, try plain yogurt with fresh fruit or a handful of dried fruit and nuts.
8. Pay attention to the glycemic index (GI) of foods. This refers to how quickly a particular food is absorbed and, therefore, raises your blood sugar level. Foods with a high GI, such as white bread, white rice, mashed potatoes and watermelon, are absorbed relatively quickly and so provide an immediate source of energy. Foods with a low GI, such as pumpernickel bread, brown rice, bulgur, lentils, yams, apples, pears and yogurt, are absorbed more slowly and cause a slower, more gradual rise in blood sugar, which leads to more consistent energy levels. These lower-GI foods take longer to digest and can keep you feeling full longer, which may help you manage your weight.
9. Help stave off colds and flus by eating lots of fruits and vegetables. These foods are rich in vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that can boost your immunity and keep you energized. In the winter months, when fresh produce is not as readily available, buy frozen fruits and vegetables; they are usually packed with many important nutrients.
10. Stay hydrated. You need at least two litres of fluid -- whether it's water, juice, milk, sports drinks or soups -- per day to be properly hydrated and energized. You need even more if you exercise. Unfortunately, you can't depend on thirst as an indicator of your fluid needs; you could be mildly dehydrated without knowing it. You should get in the habit of consuming fluids regularly, even if you aren't active.
11. Go easy on caffeine and alcohol. The caffeine in coffee may give you a boost to get your day started but too much throughout the day can overstimulate your system and cause insomnia. Alcohol can also affect sleep patterns. And, if your sleep is disturbed, so is your energy. Keep your caffeine intake under 450 milligrams a day (a cup of coffee has between 120 and 180 milligrams and a cup of tea about 50 milligrams).
12. Combine foods properly for all meals or snacks. The best combination is complex carbohydrates (bread, grains or pasta) with lean protein (meat, fish, chicken, cheese, eggs or tofu). Carbohydrates are easy to digest and give you fuel within a relatively short period of time. However, if your meal is heavy in carbohydrates, such as a big plate of pasta with tomato sauce, you may become sleepy afterward. Protein foods take longer to digest and tend to make you feel more alert.
13. Include iron-rich foods in your diet. Iron-deficiency anemia is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in North America. Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin, the part of the blood that carries oxygen to all your tissues. If your diet doesn't provide enough iron, your body uses up its own stores. Fatigue, low energy and even problems with concentration are all signs of an iron deficiency. The best food sources of iron are red meats, organ meats such as liver, iron-fortified cereals, whole grain or enriched breads, dried fruits, green leafy vegetables, beans, blackstrap molasses, nuts and seeds. However, increasing your iron intake comes with an important caution: don't take iron supplements unless you're iron deficient and can't correct it by changing your diet. Too much iron can cause indigestion and constipation and can even be toxic. If you think that you have an iron deficiency, check with your physician.
Tip: To help top up your iron stores, have liver pÃ¢tÃ© on a whole wheat cracker, whole wheat cereal topped with strawberries, a handful of dried fruit or a serving of beef stir-fry.
14. Exercise regularly. Getting physical is a good way to keep your energy levels high. Exercise increases both endurance and strength, helps you sleep better and is a great stress reliever.
15. Forget about supplements or products labelled with the word energy. Just because a food has energy on its label doesn't mean that eating it will make you more energetic.
The energy in food
Energy is defined as the capacity to work or do vigorous activity. In the nutrition world, the word energy is synonymous with calories -- all foods give you energy. It's not the vitamins in food that provide energy, although these nutrients are necessary to power many metabolic processes the body uses to transform food into energy. You get energy instead from the three basics: carbohydrates, protein and fats.
Carbohydrates are the body's high-octane fuel. When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose, causing your blood sugar level to rise. This triggers your pancreas to release insulin, a hormone that helps glucose get into your body's cells. Once in the cells, glucose supplies the high-octane energy to fuel your body. Unused glucose is stored in muscles and liver. Your body draws on these stores whenever your blood sugar drops.
Protein builds, maintains and repairs the body's tissues. Your body can convert protein to energy but it's a less efficient source than carbohydrates.
While fats are the most concentrated source of calories, they're less efficient sources of energy than carbohydrates because they take longer to digest and metabolize.