Eating for Energy

After my second child was born, I had a whopping case of fatigue. Which is to be expected in those early, sleepless days, but how I decided to cope with it only perpetuated my exhaustion: I turned to food to help keep me going—specifically, all the basic the comfort foods, such as pasta, cookies, muffins and bagels.

The problem is that these foods all produce a spike in blood sugar and then a corresponding nosedive. Meaning: That lift precedes a crash. Always. Your crash may be subtle—staring off into space or feeling vaguely foggy—or more pronounced—dozing off at your desk. Which then makes you crave another dose of sugar (or refined grains, such as flour, which is processed into sugar once you eat it).

It was a vicious cycle, and a tough one to break. But I eventually did, and these are the steps I took to do it:

First, resist the sugar. I know it’s hard to change habits particularly where sugar is involved—trust me, I do!—but reminding yourself that the sugar you’re craving will only leave you feeling worse in a half-hour can help open the door in your mind just long enough to choose something else. And once you start experiencing how good it feels to eat things that produce lasting energy, those good feelings will help motivate you to keep going.

One word: Protein. This building block is found in every cell in your body. Give yourself ample protein and your body will have what it needs to function and to thrive. That doesn’t mean you need to eat a bunch of meet—whey protein, nuts, seeds (such as pumpkin, sunflower and flax), eggs, almond milk, quinoa and beans are all great sources of protein. Include at least a little protein each time you eat and watch the needle on your internal energy sensor rise.

Add high-quality fats. The best way to ward off sugar cravings is to fuel yourself with fat – not heaping piles of fries kind of fat, but moderate portions healthful fats. Think half an avocado sprinkled with a little sea salt, one or two small pieces of organic cheese, a handful of walnuts, macadamia nuts or olives, a drizzle of olive oil on a salad, a teaspoon or two of coconut oil swirled into your oatmeal, or a hard-boiled organic egg for a snack. Fat keeps you full for a long time and doesn’t cause a spike and then subsequent drop in blood sugar, meaning you won’t have a craving for more sweets or comfort food.

Prioritize hydration—both what you eat and what you drink. Being thirsty makes you tired. (The next time you feel your motor slowing down, drink a glass of water.) So make sure you’re continually sipping on water or tea–preferably herbal or green to keep your caffeine intake in check, as too much caffeine makes it difficult to sleep which only perpetuates the cycle of feeling like you need caffeine to keep going. You can also boost your overall level of hydration by eating more foods that have a high-water content—such as fresh vegetables, raw nuts, and even whole grains and beans cooked in plenty of water—and fewer that have a low-water content—crackers, chips, roasted nuts and nearly all processed foods.

Try a green juice. Remember when Popeye would down a can of spinach and suddenly find super human strength? While not quite as dramatic, drinking a green juice is a real-world alternative. I’m not talking about grabbing a green smoothie drink from the beverage case—those are primarily fruit and thus, primarily sugar, meaning they have a ton of calories and will also cause a crash. I’m talking straight-up juice, from a juice bar, made with primarily vegetables: spinach, kale, celery, cucumbers… including a lemon can jazz up the taste, as can asking them to include an apple. It’s a practically immediate way to spike your nutrient intake, enabling you to consume the nutrients from a whole armful of green vegetables in one fell swoop.

Weekly challenge: If you’d like to feel more energetic, start by first noticing how many sugar-y or bread-y things you are eating in a day. When do you typically eat them? And how do you feel 30-60 minutes after eating them? It’s important to connect the dots in your mind between what you’re currently eating and how you’re feeling. Then, challenge yourself to replace just one of these sweeter foods with something either high in protein, high-quality fat or water content. That’s it. Just one. Then check in with yourself again in seven days and write down how you feel 30-60 minutes after eating. Big changes are built incrementally – give yourself a small success and it will encourage you to keep going.