How many of us have days when we feel like we just have no energy or enthusiasm, yet we can’t quite put our finger on why? Often these are the days when we reach for that quick ‘pick me up’, turning to overly processed, comfort foods to make us ‘feel better’. But how long-lasting are those effects in reality? Do they end up turning in to feelings of guilt that actually end up taking your mood even lower? And do these nutritiously poor foods contribute anything to our energy levels?
The truth is that how you choose to fuel your body and your daily habits can have a significant impact on your energy levels and therefore your happiness.
So, what can you do to avoid those lacklustre days?
What You Need to Know About Energy Balance
Your energy balance is determined by the number of calories you consume; it is the link between how much you eat and how much you burn. Essentially, we convert calories in to energy which then allows us to carry out our daily activities. Everything from breathing, thinking and digesting food to climbing stairs or working out requires energy.
In fact, our brains use 20% of all the energy our body requires. If you are not getting enough, you create a negative energy balance which, if too severe, can leave you feeling lethargic, low in mood and can even affect your hormones. Therefore, suddenly restricting intake in a bid to lose weight quickly is rarely a sustainable lifestyle choice.
If you are someone who struggles with a lack of energy yet want to lose weight, it is much better to create a slight calorie deficit that won’t compromise your mental and/or physical capacity.
An important question to ask yourself if you are struggling with energy is are you consuming enough calories?
Essential Vitamins and Minerals
If it is all about calories in v calories out, then do you really need to worry about what food choices you are making as long as your energy balance is on point? The simple answer is YES!!! If your body is not getting enough nutrient rich foods, then you could be lacking in essential vitamins and minerals that may affect your mood.
Whilst there are 24 of these vitamins and minerals, when it comes to energy, there are some that are worth paying some serious consideration to. These are iron, B12 and Vitamin D. A lack of folate can also be a culprit, particularly amongst pregnant women. This can be found in peppers, broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale, cauliflower, avocado, peas and citrus fruits.
A B12 deficiency can be a particular concern for vegetarians and vegans. This is because B12 is most commonly found in animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs. If you do eliminate meat from your diet then ensuring you get adequate B12 from other sources such as milk, cheese, yogurts etc could be all you need to do. If, however, you are vegan or lack dairy in your diet then a B12 supplement could be a sensible option. It is also worth considering for adults over 65 as they experience digestive changes which means they often cannot absorb this essential vitamin as well.
Another common area of deficiency amongst women and adolescent girls is iron which can lead to anaemia and therefore fatigue. There are two types of iron available in food, nonheme and heme. Nonheme is found in green vegetables like spinach and in pulses such as lentils and beans but their bio-availability is limited which means can only absorb a small amount of this. The bio-availability of iron is, however, much greater in animal sources. The heme iron found in animal proteins, particularly red meat, is easier for the human body to absorb. This is also the case for calcium and vitamin A – they are much easier to absorb from animal food sources than plants.
So, if you find that an iron deficiency is leaving you lethargic, it is worth increasing your meat intake. That is not to say that you won’t get enough from vegetable sources if you are not a meat-eater but you will need to be more aware and may need to consider a supplement.
Another point worth noting is that Vitamin C does improve the bio-availability of iron so when you do eat your greens, try squeezing some lemon or adding in some orange – this well improve the amount your body absorbs and therefore can utilise.
Not getting adequate B12, iron or folate through your diet can greatly contribute to feelings of lethargy. It is worth looking at what you may be lacking so you can increase your dietary variety.
Another essential vitamin that cannot be ignored when discussing energy, is Vitamin D. A lack of this can significantly impact energy levels which is something that affects many of us; 50% of the worldwide population are deficient! This is because we get very small amounts of it through our diet. It is, in fact, extremely difficult to get enough through food alone; you would need to eat 143 eggs to get an adequate day’s supply.
We do synthesise it through our skin when we are exposed to sunlight which is why it is often referred to as the ‘sunshine vitamin’. But in an era when we have all been programmed to ‘apply the sunscreen’ at even the first glimpse of the sun, our Vitamin D levels are falling.
Vitamin D is therefore one of the few supplements that I would advise the majority of people to consider. The amount will depend on how much sun exposure you get. National guidelines tend to fall short on recommended levels but evidence-based research suggests that somewhere between 2500-4000IU a day is a good rule of thumb. You are probably more likely to require a higher dose during the winter months.
With a worldwide epidemic of deficiency, most people would benefit from a Vitamin D supplement.
Many people who lack energy fail to realise how important it is to remain hydrated. Dehydration can play a key role in feelings of lethargy.
Water is crucial in making sure that important nutrients are distributed to the body’s cells and that toxins are removed. It is contained in every cell in the body! Whilst it doesn’t produce energy as such, it is vital in making sure nutrients are received adequately.
But how do you know if you are hydrated enough or not? Simple – check the colour of your urine and compare it with the urine colour chart below.
If you aren’t quite hydrated enough then consider these simple tips:
1. Carry a drink with you at all times
2. Flavour your water with fruit or sugar free squash
3. Eat hydrating foods like fruit, vegetables and yogurt
4. Thirst can be mistaken for hunger so try a glass of water or a herbal tea before grabbing that snack!
5. Set a reminder every hour to remind you to drink a glass of water.
And if you have little ones and are concerned they aren’t drinking enough, then check out my blog for tips on how to keep your children hydrated.
Dehydration can lead to chronic levels of fatigue. Always try to remain hydrated and if in doubt, check the colour of your urine!
Another important factor to consider when trying to maximise energy is the timing of your meals; are you going long periods without fuelling your body?
Whilst meal frequency doesn’t matter if you are looking to maintain or lose weight (as long as your energy balance is in the right place), irregular or infrequent meal timing can have a huge impact on mood. If your body knows when it is going be nourished, it regulates hunger more effectively and ensures you have enough glucose in your blood. This is essential to keeping your energy levels up; hypoglycaemia occurs when glucose levels are low which can leave us feeling very weak.
As a rule of thumb, aim for 3 meals a day with 1-3 small snacks and try to ensure you include some healthy carbohydrates such as vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, low fat dairy etc. Carbohydrates are an important source of glucose so cutting back on them too far will affect your energy levels.
Consider the timing of your carbohydrates, if you struggle to sleep then having them in the evenings may help.
Who hasn’t tried to perk themselves up with a coffee? Coffee contains high levels of caffeine that helps us stay alert. This is because it surpresses a molecule called adenosine; a ’sleepiness’ molecule. When we drink coffee, it is absorbed in the small intestines within about an hour when it then becomes available throughout the blood and most parts of the body, including your brain. As it starts entering your brain, it starts opposing adenosine. Caffeine tends to peak in the blood after about 2 hours which is when we feel the most benefits; this is why people tend to drink it upon waking as it isn’t an immediate hit.
As the day goes on, most of your morning coffee will have worked off which leads to you relaxing and feeling sleepy again. So, what do we do, we drink more coffee! Yet the closer we get to bedtime, the less likely it is that caffeine will have left the system. This is why caffeine close to bed time isn’t advisable – it can inhibit the increase in adenosine which is counterproductive to a good night’s sleep. This can be a vicious cycle with people relying on coffee to get them through the day without realising that it could be the cause of their fatigue in the first place if it is impacting sleep.
Be sensible with caffeine intake; ideally try not to consume high amounts after midday.
As we are on the topic, sleep plays a vital role in maintaining our energy levels. It gives our body time to rest and recover from the day’s activities so that you are ready to seize the next day. Fast paced, western lifestyles are, however, impeding on this and whilst we are all striving for optimal health, we are overlooking one of its key components. Yet sleep deprivation can have severe negative effects on both our physical and mental health.
Serotonin is the chemical in the brain that, when released, helps us to sleep better which has an impact on how we feel and how much energy we have. We derive serotonin from an essential amino acid called tryptophan which is found in poultry, seafood, cheese and red meat.
It is also believed that carbohydrates can help serotonin reach our brain which is why they are sometimes recommended before bed, to help relax and calm us before sleep. More research need to be done in this area however.
For more information on how much sleep we need and how to improve your sleep hygiene, read my blog here.
Sleep can help to regulate anxiety, mood and therefore our energy levels. Getting enough is essential to optimal health.
Whilst I have exemplified why a healthy balanced diet is so important when it comes to regulating our moods and boosting energy, there is no escaping the fact that sometimes we just want a quick pick me up! The foods we tend to reach for though contain very few vitamins and minerals and won’t give you the long term effect you are craving. That’s not to say you should always avoid these ‘comfort’ foods but be mindful and consume them within the context of a balanced diet that is providing you with all the nutrients you need.
A last thing to note is that very often these comfort foods are linked to ‘happiness’(albeit fleetingly…) but this is not usually because of the nutrients they provide, it is often because we associate them with a sense of security and/or a reward.
Our food habits and behaviours often play pivotal roles in how we feel and how much energy we have.
A healthy, balanced diet that includes a variety of food choices is key in making us feel good; whilst there are many nutrient dense foods out there, no one food will provide you with everything your body requires – there are 24 essential vitamins and nutrients that our bodies require!
The manufacturing process can greatly reduce the nutrient density of your foods to the extent that although they may give you a false ‘boost’, they do little to satisfy your body which is what is required to keep your energy levels consistent.
In contrast, a diet rich in unprocessed foods can vastly enhance your health which has a direct, positive impact on your energy, motivation and happiness.
If you are feeling low in energy, then the chances are that you are deficient in something. So, become your ‘own’ doctor; analyse your diet and see what is missing. You can then slowly begin to add in some leafy vegetables or a portion of red meat. Adapt gradually and once you start reaping the benefits, you won’t look back. In fact, you will be miles ahead.
This Blog was brought to you by Rebecca Flannery of Transformational Nutrition.
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