As the weather warms up, you may be inspired to engage in more outdoor activities. But before you do pick up a few healthy eating habits for the energy to carry you through those long summer days.
Experts say while the simple act of eating will give you energy, making the right food choices can mean the difference between crankiness and sustained vigor.
"All our food is made of carbohydrate, protein and fat and those three macro nutrients all have energy because they all have calories," says Sheah Rarback, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association from Miami, Fla. "But the one that the body turns to energy most rapidly is carbohydrate."
That means that if you're in need of a quick energy boost, you should reach for foods high in carbohydrates like a piece of fresh fruit, rice cake, or crackers. Getting sustained energy, however, requires a more varied mix of foods.
"If you want that energy to last a little bit longer, you add a little bit of protein or a little bit of fat," says Rarback. "So if you took that rice cake and added some peanut butter, your body is using the carbohydrate energy right away and then the little bit of fat is sustaining you — it takes longer to digest."
Battling Fatigue, Overlooking Iron
Experts also say some of diet-related causes of fatigue can be easily overlooked.
"We talk about feeling fatigued, and sometimes people don't realize why they feel the way they do," says Randi Konikoff, a dietitian from the Tufts University School of Nutrition in Boston, Mass. "For instance, you may associate a headache with being hungry, but it may mean that you are not getting enough water."
Headaches and fatigue are common side effects of dehydration, and so it's a good idea to make sure you are getting the recommended daily amount of water — typically 6 to 8 glasses.
Another cause of diet-related fatigue is iron-deficiency anemia, particularly for menstruating women.
"If iron is the root of your problems, blackstrap molasses can help," says Erin O'Donnell, senior editor for Natural Health Magazine. "Blackstrap molasses contains a ton of iron, and you could add it to baked goods, or use a teaspoon of it in your tea."
Iron is also found in oysters, beans, red meats, and dietary supplements.
But increasing one's iron intake comes with an important caution, because taking in too much can be dangerous. Some research has associated excessive iron intake with cardiovascular disease and even cancer.
If you suspect iron-deficiency is playing a role in sapping you of energy, you should see your physician to determine an effective treatment approach.
It's Best To Be Complex
While experts say there aren't any foods that will rob you of energy and so should be avoided, foods high in simple sugars — like soda or candy — may not be the best choice because they lack substance.
"Simple sugars tend to give you a quick spike and you'll feel good for about an hour," says Konikoff. "Depending on what else you have in your system to balance that, you'll come down quick."
For this reason, choosing complex carbs and fiber, like those found in whole grains and brown rice can ward off blood-sugar crashes. Even choosing an orange, which combines simple sugar and fiber is a better bet.
Additionally, overeating or eating meals high in fat — two things that often go together — can cause people to feel sluggish, especially if they are used to eating light meals.
Experts also point out that experiencing a midday drop in energy is not unusual, no matter what you eat for lunch. That's why frequent eating and including healthy snacks can help.
"The idea of having a snack machine nearby is wonderful, but choosing the right thing is important," says Konikoff. "Having a handful of [candy] might not get you to the same satiated point as a handful of peanuts."
And experts say, more than concentrating on eating specific foods for energy, people should focus on eating a balanced diet with a complete complement of nutrients.
"You want to get a good mix," adds Rarback.