Registered dietician Rebecca Scritchfield has worked with athletes at all levels, from high-school all-stars to professional football players. She knows how important a quick burst of energy can be for athletic performance. But when her clients need an energy boost, she doesn’t tell them to reach for an oversize cup of coffee. She tells them to eat.
“Calories are energy,” she says. “Everyone thinks they’re being health-conscious by cutting calories, but what they should be thinking is: Low calories means low energy.”
Scritchfield says everybody requires a certain amount of calories everyday for their brains to function properly and for their muscles to work well during exercise. A person’s ideal calorie number depends on his or her gender, age, height, weight, and activity level. If you want to know how many calories you should be consuming in a day, online calories calculators, such as this one from the Mayo Clinic, will do the math for you.
If you struggle with feeling sluggish, it might be that you’re not getting enough calories or that you’re getting them in the wrong kinds of foods. “The key is to find foods that balance good nutrition and calories,” says Scritchfield. “While someone might drink a soda for quick energy, there’s nothing else in it to nourish you, so you lose that energy pretty quickly.” It’s better to have a cup of yogurt with fruit and granola: The sugar will give you the quick energy boost you’re looking for, while the protein will provide sustained energy that will last for hours. The difference, says Scritchfield, is the quality of the calories.
There’s also a timing issue: “If you’re reaching for coffee or a soda in the afternoon, you should think: Do I really need caffeine or food?” says Scritchfield. She advises clients to avoid caloric backloading—getting the majority of the day’s calories at the end of the day. Instead, you should spread them out so that by mid-afternoon, you’ve already consumed half of your day’s calories. By taking in calories at a more even pace, you’ll keep your energy level high throughout the day and your metabolism working hard to burn fat—a win-win.
Another energy robber might be a too-low B-vitamin intake. B vitamins—actually a group of eight vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine, folic acid, cyanocobalamin, pantothenic acid, and biotin—are key ingredients in the body’s food-to-energy process. Without them, the body can’t start the chemical reaction needed to transfer energy from food to your body.
Rather than opting for supplements—Scritchfield only recommends them when there’s a medical need—you should eat foods that are high in B vitamins. Combine them with foods that balance calories and nutrients, and you’ve got a recipe for energy.
Here are some of Scritchfield’s favorite energy-boosting combos:
• A smoothie made with a banana, a cup of Greek yogurt, and 2 tablespoons of chia seeds. The seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids, an essential fat our bodies need but don’t make themselves; the banana has carbs, potassium, and B vitamins; and the yogurt has protein. “This would be a great high-energy breakfast,” says Scritchfield.
• Spinach-and-quinoa salad with a vinaigrette. Pack this salad for an energy-boosting lunch. Quinoa is a grain that’s a complete protein, meaning it has all the proteins your body needs in just one serving. It also has important minerals and fiber. Spinach has good-for-you calories, plus four B vitamins and a host of other nutrients. Choose (or make) an olive-oil-based vinaigrette for a punch of omega 3. Of the store-bought brands, Scritchfield likes the Newman’s Own line of dressings.
• Edamame with tuna and whole-wheat crackers. Here’s an interesting twist on snack time: A few handfuls of these lightly-salted soybeans gives you the crunch of potato chips but none of the thigh-sticking fat. The edamame is packed with protein, carbs, omega 3s, and B vitamins. Scritchfield likes to buy them frozen, and then let them thaw in a portable container for an afternoon snack. She’ll pair them with some tuna (mixed with olive oil and lemon juice) atop fiber-and-protein-rich whole-grain crackers.