We’re teaming up with Julie Harrington, registered dietitian and culinary nutrition chef in a monthly series focusing on the important role food plays in overall health.

When that mid-day energy slump hits, it can be tempting to grab another cup of coffee or a sugary snack to give us an instant burst. Instead, opt for these healthier, energy-boosting foods for sustained energy throughout your day.

In this episode of Food Rx, we’re exploring how our body uses food to produce energy, energy-boosting foods to eat every day and other natural ways to increase energy levels.

How does the body use food to produce energy?

Our bodies need energy in order to function properly. That energy comes from the food we eat. When we consume food, our body’s digestive system breaks it down into smaller pieces to be absorbed in the body. When food is absorbed, it gives us energy and also to grow and repair.

When we talk about energy, it’s not only important to fuel us to run around and play, but also to think, stay warm, and to keep our body’s organs working properly.

The main source of energy comes from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are found in grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, beans, and legumes.

While all foods provide us energy, whole foods will provide more nutrient-dense energy and may provide more long-lasting energy, whereas processed food will provide you energy, but only for short period of time.

Let’s take a closer look at two breakfast options:

  • Option A: Chocolate glazed donut
  • Option B: Bowl of oatmeal (made with milk) topped with banana and walnuts

Which one will provide us energy?

While both breakfast options provide energy, Option A provides a short burst of energy and then an energy crash. Why? Because a donut is made with refined carbohydrates and added sugar.

Option B contains complex carbohydrates, fiber, healthy fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals, providing more long-lasting energy.

What foods should I eat to boost energy levels?

Foods are converted to energy at different rates. Some can give you a quicker boost or provide longer-lasting energy than others. The main goal should be eating a well-balanced diet to provide your body energy.

Bananas provide a source of complex carbohydrates, potassium, and vitamin B6, all of which can help boost your energy levels.

Wrap up in a tortilla with peanut butter to make fruit sushi or blend with frozen berries for “nice” cream.

Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are packed with complex carbohydrates, fiber, vitamin A, and manganese. The body digests sweet potatoes slowly providing a steady stream of energy.

Cook with apples for a savory breakfast parfait, thinly slice and bake for homemade chips, or mash for these tasty quesadillas.

Yogurt contains carbohydrates lactose and galactose. When broken down, these sugars can provide ready-to-use energy.

Next time, reach for yogurt when you are feeling that 3pm slump. Top with fresh fruit and granola for a filling snack.

Eggs are packed with protein and when paired with carbohydrates create a steady and sustained source of energy.

Hard-boiled eggs are perfect for easy snacking or make a batch of these Broccoli Cheese Quiches for breakfast all week.

Oatmeal is a complex carbohydrate that contains beta-glucan, a soluble fiber that forms a thick gel when combined with water, which digests slowly, creating longer-lasting energy.

Enjoy a traditional bowl of oatmeal, or turn oats into energy bites for mid-day snacking.

Edamame is high in protein, B-vitamins, copper, and phosphorus. Copper and phosphorus are involved in converting food into energy and releasing it into cells so it’s available for the body to use.

Steam and sprinkle lightly with sea salt for a great mid-day snack to hold you over until dinner.

Salmon (or other fatty fish) contains omega-3 fatty acids that have been shown to reduce inflammation, which is a common cause of fatigue.

Bake salmon on a sheet pan for a fuss-free dinner or save time and opt for canned salmon for this easy pasta dish.

Berries are full of fiber, which slowly delivers energy that will keep you sustained after consuming them. Bonus, add berries to other energy-boosting foods like oatmeal or yogurt.

Blend berries into smoothies, bake into muffins or eat plain as a snack.

Apples are a good source of carbs and fiber. With its rich content of natural sugars and fiber, apples provide slow, sustainable energy. Apples are also the perfect on-the-go snack.

Pair with ham and cheese for an easy snack, dice and add to chicken salad, or top with peanut butter.

Beans are a great source of natural energy. They’re a rich source of carbs, fiber and protein, and are digested slowly to help maintain blood sugar levels.

Enjoy a black bean burger for a filling lunch, add to your favorite salsa, or mash and add to quesadillas.

avocados in different shades of green

Avocados are a true superfood. They’re rich in healthy fats, B vitamins and fiber. The healthy fats in avocados are store in the body and used for energy.

Blend into smoothies for a super creamy texture, dip into some guacamole or add to your sandwich.

Nuts are a great snack, and they’re known for their high calorie density. They provide carbs and fiber for steady, sustained energy throughout the day.

Grab a handful for a snack or use nut butters as a spread with fruit!

These are just a few energy-boosting foods to keep on your radar. Consuming a well-balanced diet and eating nourishing meals and snacks throughout the day will keep energy levels stable. 

What are other ways to naturally boost energy levels?

Beyond the food we eat, our overall lifestyle impacts our energy levels. Other ways to naturally boost energy levels include:

Drink water.

Even mild dehydration can leave you feeling drained and fatigued. Dehydration can impair energy levels, impair mood, and lead to major reductions in memory and brain performance.

For more on the importance of water + fun ways to infuse water, check out our previous Food Rx video!

Control stress.

Dealing with constant stress can zap energy levels. Try relaxation techniques like meditation, deep breathing or apps like Calm or Headspace.

Check out episode 40 of the Healthy Family Project podcast for more on meditation benefits.

Get outside.

Sunlight helps boost serotonin, which can provide more energy and help keep you calm, positive, and focused. Can’t get outside? Open the blinds to let the light shine inside.

Sleep well.

Aim for better quality sleep. Go to bed earlier and reduce screen time before bed. A good night’s sleep will do wonders for your energy levels.

Move more.

Sounds counterintuitive, but when feeling sluggish get up and move. Even if it’s getting up from your desk every hour, going for a walk, or taking a workout class. Exercising can lead to higher brain dopamine levels, which helps elevate mood.

Be social.

Social connections and relationships are important to overall health. Isolation can lead to low mood or tiredness.

Disclaimer: Before making any health or diet changes, please consult your doctor. The information shared as part of Food Rx is meant to be informative but not replace medical advice from your doctor.