Carrie Gabriel, MS, RDN, outlines the best healthy foods for energy, equally divided amongst proteins, carbs, and fats.
If we’re talking energy boosters, sure, a good night’s sleep plays an important role. But more often, the type and quantity of the food we eat significantly impact our energy levels. What foods give you energy? It may feel like energy drinks or coffee do the trick, but that’s not necessarily the case. Even though all foods give you energy, some contain more key nutrients that help increase your energy levels.
Want to stay alert, focused, and productive throughout the day? Be sure to add some of these energy-boosting foods to your diet to put some pep in your step.
How Do Certain Foods Affect Your Energy Levels?
The food you eat has an impact on your metabolism and also your blood sugar, which you may not be acutely aware of if you’re not someone with say, diabetes, who has to measure their blood sugar regularly. This is where glycemic index comes into play—it measures how a particular food will affect blood sugar levels, and therefore your energy levels. (For example, have you ever felt super woozy before eating in the morning because your blood sugar was low?)
You may find that you get exhilarating boosts of energy from foods that are high glycemic, including carbs, sugary foods, and drinks like soda. But then there’s that crash that causes your energy levels to dip even lower. That’s why you need low glycemic foods, which don’t cause a blood sugar spike and therefore give you more sustained energy (think: marathon vs. sprints). To keep your energy going for longer, reach for foods like berries, beans and legumes, dark chocolate, and nuts.
Vitamin B12One of the key vitamins that keeps your energy high is B12, so much so that a lack thereof can cause tiredness, dizziness, and blurred vision. You mostly will find it in animal products like meat, so if you’re following a vegan or plant-based diet, you might have vitamin B12 deficiency. That can cause physical and mental fatigue. In that case, you can turn to a vegan vitamin B12 supplement like HUM’s B12 Turbo
12 of the Best Healthy Foods for Energy
Eggs are rich in leucine, an essential amino acid that helps the body use energy and recover muscles after exercise. They’re also high in choline, an essential nutrient in the B-vitamin family. Choline aids cellular growth, metabolism, and the functioning of the central nervous system. Additionally, eggs are a protein-rich food that give you energy but are also low in calories. A single egg has 70 calories and six grams of protein, which makes them an ideal base for many healthy meals or snacks.
2. Greek Yogurt
Plain Greek yogurt is a nutrient-packed snack with tons of benefits if you’re eating for energy and satiety.
Different from regular sweeter yogurts, this dairy product has soared in popularity over the last few years due to its higher protein content. One six-ounce serving can pack up to 17 grams of protein.
Studies show that eating higher quantities of dietary protein can improve the regulation of energy intake. Further, it better promotes satiety and appetite control.
There’s also an extra step in the process of making Greek yogurt in which whey—the liquid that contains lactose (the natural sugar found in milk)—is drained out. What’s left is a creamy, rich yogurt with less sugar, more protein, and a tart flavor. The acidity also makes it easier for your body to absorb other nutrients, as well.
3. Lean Meat
Lean meats are those with relatively low fat content. Think skinless chicken, turkey, and meats with the fat trimmed off.
Lean meats are super high in proteins and can keep you satiated for hours. They’re also full of nutrients like iron, which helps transport blood cells throughout the body and keeps our energy levels high. They also contain B vitamins (to keep us mentally and physically alert) and magnesium (for strong bones).Dietitian’s Tip: For a well-rounded meal, practice nutrition for energy by pairing lean meat with a side of leafy greens and a complex carbohydrate (like roasted sweet potato or brown rice).
Bananas are among the best natural energy foods.
While they’re a good natural source of sugar, they’re also rich in fibers that help slow the digestion of that sugar, making it less likely to have an energy crash from eating them.Bananas are rich in potassium, helping the body’s circulatory system deliver oxygen to the brain. This also helps the body maintain a regular heartbeat, lower blood pressure, and maintain a proper balance of water, according to the National Institute of Health.
5. Whole Grains
Whole grains are among the best healthy foods that give you energy. Top picks include oats, brown rice, barley, and even whole-wheat pasta.
They offer a “complete package” of health benefits, unlike refined grains, which are stripped of valuable nutrients in the refining process. Whole grains boost energy with complex carbohydrates that release over time. They also provide other minerals and nutrients that can help balance blood sugar to avoid craving-induced energy crashes.
Lentils may be small, but they’re mighty when it comes to keeping your energy on track.
How, you ask? These legumes are high in fiber, which slows the body’s process of turning carbohydrates into glucose in the blood. This fiber prevents the kind of blood sugar spikes that leave you on an energy roller coaster: up one minute, then down the next.
Lentils are also low in calories and packed with B vitamins and protein, making them a nutritional powerhouse. Dietitian’s Tip: Soak your lentils before cooking them for better digestion.
7. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are an amazing source of long-term energy. Healthy fats like chia help your body function at its best and burn more calories throughout the day.
Similar to flaxseeds, chia seeds also contain a high source of omega-3 fatty acids. This super seed is also filled with heart-healthy fiber and plant-based protein.
A typical serving consists of two tablespoons. You can add this energy-boosting food to breakfast cereals and smoothies. Otherwise, you can prepare it as chia pudding.
Almonds are one of the best snacks that boost energy. Ounce for ounce, they’re among the most nutrient-rich nuts. Almonds are packed with vitamin E and magnesium. They contain about 9 grams of protein per quarter-cup to help you sustain your energy levels throughout the day.
9. Peanut Butter
Other healthy fats like olive and fish oils can help give you energy, but peanut butter is one of the most popular energy-dense foods.
Although peanut butter is high in calories—as are most healthy fats—a little goes a long way for a healthy energy boost. It also contains protein and fiber to help stave off hunger and keep blood sugar levels stable.
Dietitian’s Tip: Instead of spreading your morning toast with butter or jelly—which have negligible protein and fiber—top your slices with an all-natural, pure nut butter. Avoid brands with added sugar and stick to a two-tablespoon serving.
10. Dark Chocolate
Foods like green tea and dark chocolate contain a natural boost of caffeine, making them one of the tastiest foods to increase energy levels. It can help give you that energy lift, without the crash you might feel after your morning cups of coffee. To reap the benefits of better circulation and even cognitive function (yes, it’s a brain food) studies show that you should go for a dark chocolate with 70% or higher of cacao.
Back to the legume theory: Hummus is made from chickpeas, which, like lentils, have enough protein and soluble fiber to stabilize glucose levels in your blood. It’s a low glycemic option for that reason.
And because it contains the sesame seed paste tahini, there are also some unsaturated fatty acids in the mix, another reason it keeps you full.
12. Dried Fruit
Yes, you should pack your diet with fresh fruit (and veggies), but don’t knock the dried stuff. Dates and apricots are specifically low glycemic and a healthy sweet treat. That’s what makes them a good choice, coupled with nuts, for insulin-resistance and diabetes. This is your sign to DIY A trail mix.