fuel gauge
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Food Is Fuel, But …

What you eat gives you energy. But some kinds of foods are more like a burst, while other types keep you going longer. Do you know what’s got staying power and what’s a quick hit?

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photo of white bread
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"Simple" Carbs

Think pasta, white bread, crackers, candy, cookies, and sweets. Food made with lots of sugar or refined white flour don’t have much fiber for your body to break down. This lets sugar get into your bloodstream really fast. You may get a quick burst of energy. But when your blood sugar drops back down, you may feel sluggish. 

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brown cooked rice
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Whole Grains

These include brown rice, barley, farro, oatmeal (not the instant kind), and whole wheat.  You’ll get more fiber in them, which keeps your energy going stronger, longer. Plus, these foods are packed with many nutrients that are good for you.

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photo of cola
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Sugary Drinks

These include sports and energy drinks, regular sodas, and some fruit juice (those with 100% fruit juice are much more nutritious). You may get some pep in your step after you sip one, but not for long -- just like with sugary foods. Some of these drinks have caffeine in them, too. If you drink too much and can’t sleep well tonight, that means you’ll be more tired tomorrow. 

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Wine, Beer, and Liquor

Alcohol can make you drowsy. If you drink it at night, you may find it easy to fall asleep. But you will probably wake up when the nightcap wears off after a few hours. When your sleep is choppy, you can feel tired the next day. Alcohol can also relax the muscles in your throat, which can make sleep apnea worse.

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woman drinking glass of water
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Water

Technically, it won’t give you energy because water has no calories. But if you don't drink enough of it, you might feel tired. Make this your go-to drink at meals and throughout the day. Add some lemon, lime, or other fruit if that helps you want to drink enough of it. 

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Dairy: OK for Most People

Milk and foods that contain it won’t crash your energy level. If you’re lactose-intolerant, simply choose lactose-free milk or non-dairy options like almond, soy, rice, oat, or coconut beverages. Make sure you pick ones that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Your body needs those vitamins for many reasons.

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What About Gluten?

If you have celiac disease, you can’t digest the protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and some oats. It can give you all kinds of gastrointestinal distress and make you tired. But there is nothing unhealthy about gluten. So if you feel fine after eating it, you don’t need to avoid it. If you do have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, eat naturally gluten-free foods and grains like quinoa, rice, and nut flours.

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photo of coffee
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Caffeine’s Kick

You may feel a jolt of energy when you start your day with a cup of coffee or tea. That’s because caffeine has chemicals that make you more alert. But if you drink more than a few cups or drink it close to bedtime, you may have trouble dozing off. And that can make you feel tired the next day -- until you have your caffeine! If you have trouble sleeping, switch to a caffeine-free option at least 6 hours before bed.

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Fried Foods

You may get sleepy during the daytime or after a meal if you eat a high-fat diet. That includes meals cooked in a lot of oil or lard. Fried foods aren’t just an energy drain; they’re bad for your heart if you eat too much. Experts recommend avoiding this kind of food. But if you do indulge, limit it to small servings no more than a few times a month. To avoid the fried-food fatigue, pick a baked or broiled option instead

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Headed to a Feast?

It’s common to get sleepy after you eat a lot. (Remember how you feel a few hours after Thanksgiving?)  It happens most often after a big meal. If you eat a lot of calories and carbs with your protein, you can trigger nap time. To avoid it, try to eat less. And fill your plate with more vegetables. Or just make your peace with the nap that you’ll want later on!

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Meet in the Middle

Craving white rice with your stir-fry? Although foods that are high on the glycemic index (GI) will raise your blood sugar quickly, there’s a fix for longer-lasting energy. Simply add a low-GI food. These include beans and lentils, fish, poultry, meat, tofu, and non-starchy vegetables like broccoli or greens.

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Chocolate: Dark vs. Milk

All chocolate has caffeine in it. You’ll also get serotonin, a chemical that may relax you -- but not enough to make you feel tired. Just watch the sugar: Its quick energy burst will turn to bust before long. A little bit of chocolate is OK. For health benefits, dark chocolate beats milk chocolate because you get a higher percentage of the heart-healthy cacao that chocolate comes from.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 06/17/2019 Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on June 17, 2019

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SOURCES:

Gretchen Swank, RD, LDN, Northwestern Medicine.

Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Cleveland Clinic, Health Essentials: “4 Starches That Don’t Belong on Your Plate,” “Morning Diet: Ditch the Sugary Cereal.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Omega-3 Fatty Acids,” “Eating to Lift Your Winter Blues.” 

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar,” “Added Sugar in the Diet,” “Sugary Drinks,” “Salt and Sodium.” 

Cell Metabolism: Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake.”

Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School: “Eating to boost energy,” “Alcohol and Fatigue,” “Fried foods linked to earlier death.”  

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Age-Defying Energy Levels.”

American Heart Association: “Meat, Poultry, and Fish” Picking Healthy Proteins,” “Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids.”

Handbook of Clinical Neurology: “Alcohol and the Sleeping Brain.”

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Acta Paediatrica: “Cow’s milk protein intolerance in adolescents and young adults with chronic fatigue syndrome.”

Nutrients: “Fatigue as an Extra-Intestinal manifestation of Celiac Disease: A Systematic Review.”

Mayo Clinic Health System: “10 nutrition myths debunked.”

Celiac Disease Foundation: “Symptoms of Celiac Disease,” “Gluten-Free Foods.”

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: “A Daily Cup of Coffee or Tea May Keep You Moving: Association between Tea and Coffee Consumption and Physical Activity.”

National Sleep Foundation: “Caffeine and Sleep.”

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eLife: “Postprandial sleep mechanics in Drosophila.”

Nutrients: “Associations between Macronutrient Intake and Obstructive Sleep Apnoea as Well as Self-Reported Sleep Symptoms: Results from a Cohort of Community Dwelling Australian Men.”

Molecular Metabolism: “The role of IL-1 in postprandial fatigue.”

International Journal of Tryptophan Research: “Analysis, Nutrition, and Health Benefits of Tryptophan.”

The National Sleep Foundation: “What is Tryptophan?”

American Diabetes Association: “Glycemic Index and Diabetes.”

European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Brown rice compared to white rice slows gastric emptying in humans.”

Scientific Reports: “The mediating role of sleep in the fish consumption – cognitive functioning relationship: a cohort study.”

Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine: “Fish Consumption, Sleep, Daily Functioning, and Heart Rate Variability.”

Advances in Nutrition: “Effects of Diet on Sleep Quality.”

Frontiers in Immunology: “Cocoa and Dark Chocolate Polyphenols: From Biology to Clinical Applications.”

The FASEB Journal: “Dark chocolate (70% organic cacao) increases acute and chronic EEG power spectral density (μV2) response of gamma frequency (25–40 Hz) for brain health: enhancement of neuroplasticity, neural synchrony, cognitive processing, learning, memory, recall, and mindfulness meditation.”

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on June 17, 2019

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.