Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on June 22, 2021
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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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Gretchen Swank, RD, LDN, Northwestern Medicine.
Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine.
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