It’s been another long, wet winter. If you’re feeling a little deflated energy-wise, never fear…you’re not alone. Fatigue is one of the most common complaints voiced by both men and women. Before you blame your lack of “oomph” on your busy schedule, the grey skies, or that you’re “getting older,” think again. The answer to waning energy could be as simple what you eat.
What is the most important diet trick for staying energized?
Avoid the quick fixes: caffeine and sugar. While coffee and sweets do give you a pick-me-up, long-term coffee, colas, and sugary foods are likely to produce a “high” followed by a crash.
One or two cups of coffee help some people work more efficiently, think faster, stay alert, and concentrate better. But, when consumed in excess, coffee is a double-edged sword. The initial high is followed by mild withdrawal symptoms, including fatigue. A vicious cycle can result when you drink more coffee to prevent the inevitable let down. Instead, cut back or eliminate caffeine, switch from regular to instant or an instant blended with chicory, or blend regular with decaffeinated coffee before brewing.
A mid-morning sugar snack can send some people on a blood sugar roller coaster that leads to fatigue. For example, researchers at Kansas State University measured mood in 120 women who drank 12 ounces of water or beverages sweetened with either aspartame (NutraSweet) or sugar. After 30 minutes, the women who drank the sugar-sweetened beverage were the drowsiest. Research from the University of South Alabama in Mobile found that up to 50% of people experiencing depression report improvements in energy levels within a week of eliminating sugar and/or caffeine.
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Why do sweets bring you down?
For one thing, unlike 100% whole grains, which slowly releases carb units, called glucose, into the blood, sugar dumps rapidly into the bloodstream causing a dramatic rise in blood sugar. To counteract this rise, the pancreas quickly releases the hormone insulin, which hustles excess sugar from the blood into the cells. Consequently, blood sugar drops, often to levels lower than before the snack. Finally, people who snack on sweets are likely to consume inadequate amounts of energizing nutrients, such as vitamin C, the B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.
Rather than feed your fatigue, snack defensively. Choose nutrient-packed, time-released carbohydrates, such as whole grain crackers and string cheese, fresh fruit and nonfat yogurt, or nuts for between-meal snacks.
Ironing Out Fatigue
If your energy level is in perpetual low gear, your problem could be iron. While only 8% of women are anemic, as many as 80% of active and 20% of pre-menopausal women in general are iron deficient. Iron deficiency goes unnoticed in many cases because routine blood tests, such as the hemoglobin and hematocrit tests, screen only for anemia, which is the final stage of iron deficiency. For months before the onset of anemia, the tissue stores of iron are drained. The result is fatigue, poor exercise performance, and a host of energy-related problems.
Iron deficiency is so common that the “zest” or new-found energy many women experience after menopause might be a feeling these women should have been experiencing all their lives, but didn’t because of chronic iron deficiency. Once a woman stops losing iron in monthly menstruation, her tissues have a chance to restock iron stores, which brings with it a “new-found” zest.
The solution is simple, just include lots of iron-rich foods in your diet and take a moderate-dose iron supplement. A blood test that includes serum ferritin is the most sensitive indicator of tissue iron levels. A serum ferritin value below 20mcg/L is a red flag for iron deficiency. A moderate-dose supplement and iron-rich foods will boost lagging iron stores. Also add a vitamin C-rich food to each meal (i.e., orange juice), combine small amounts of lean meat with plant foods (spaghetti with meatballs or split pea soup with ham), cook in cast iron, and avoid drinking tea and coffee with meals, since these beverages contain tannins that reduce iron absorption.
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The Energizing Breakfast
Eat breakfast. People who skip breakfast struggle more with weight problems and low energy later in the day than do people who take time to eat. If you are a seasoned breakfast avoider, start eating breakfast, even if you aren’t hungry. It takes two to three weeks to reset the appetite clock. After that you should notice a boost in energy and less problems with overeating later in the day.
Avoid high-sugar breakfasts, such as doughnuts and coffee, that provide an initial energy boost, but leave you drowsy within a few hours. In contrast, meals with a mix of protein and starch maintain blood sugar and energy levels throughout the morning. The breakfast rules are simple. It’s the 1,2,3’s of eating: 1) a whole grain, 2) a protein, and 3) 1 to 2 servings of fruit or veggies.
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What should you eat at lunch to stay energized?
First, keep lunch light. A low-fat mid-day meal that supplies 500 calories improves afternoon alertness, while either fasting or eating a high-calorie mid-day meal can leave you tired and unable to concentrate.
Second, any carbohydrate – from bread to dessert – raises levels of a brain chemical called serotonin, which in turn makes you drowsy. Consequently, the time of day you chow down on carbs could affect your energy level; you may feel relaxed after a carbohydrate-rich dinner of Chinese vegetables and rice, but the same meal at lunch could make you sluggish. In contrast, a meal that contains some protein triggers the release of norepinephrine, a brain chemical that provides an energy and mood lift. So, to maximize the fuel from carbohydrates, while providing a sustained lift from protein, combine a little chicken, legumes, fish, or extra-lean meat with lots of grains, vegetables, and fruit. For example:
-Two tortillas filled with shredded carrots, zucchini, fat-free refried beans, and salsa. Served with low-fat milk and fruit.
– A cup of vegetable soup and a grilled-cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread. Served with sliced tomatoes and orange juice.
– A tuna sandwich on rye bread with sliced cucumbers. Serve with fresh fruit and low-fat milk.
Is water important to energy?
Staying hydrated is critical to your energy level. The first sign of dehydration is fatigue. Many of my clients who have complained of low energy find that their energy returns when they drink enough water. Eight glasses a day is a start. You need more if you workout vigorously or in hot climates.
Take the Energy Test
Do you work with, or against, your energy level? “Yes” answers are energy boosters, while “no” answers are energy drainers.
1. Do you eat at least five small meals and snacks throughout the day, including breakfast? (Eating every 4 hours provides a steady supply of fuel to sustain a high energy level.)
2. Do you consume at least 2000 calories each day of fresh fruits and vegetables, 100% whole grains, low-fat milk products, and other nutrient-packed foods? (Too few calories means too little fuel and nutrients, which can leave you drowsy.)
3. Do you avoid overeating in the evening?
4. Do you limit caffeinated beverages to three 5-ounce servings or less each day?
5. Do you limit sugar intake and only eat small amounts of sugary foods with a meal?
6. Do you drink at least six glasses of water each day? (Chronic low fluid intake can result in mild dehydration and fatigue.)
7. Do you avoid quick-weight-loss diets and never yo-yo diet? (Not eating enough, and therefore not supplying the body with ample fuel, is a common cause of fatigue.)
8. Do you take time each day to relax and enjoy life?
9. Do you include exercise in your daily routine?
10. Do you get enough restful sleep each night?
11. If you are a pre-menopausal woman, have you had your serum ferritin levels checked for iron status?
12. Do you take a moderate-dose, broad-range multi vitamin and mineral every day?
The Latest Must-Read Nutrition News
A Fat Solution to Depression: The omega-3s EPA and DHA lower depression and possibly dementia risk. Researchers at the College of Food Science and Technology in China reviewed the research on this topic. They state that these fats improve or prevent some psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases in both experimental and clinical studies. DHA and EPA are important membrane components that benefit brain health by modulating pathways involved in immunity and abnormal cell death. They also change membrane function or compete with omega-6 fats that are the building blocks of inflammatory mediators, thus potentially lowering the risk for dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease. The best EPA:DHA ratio for improving brain disorders remains unclear. It is also unknown whether EPA, as a DHA precursor, acts directly or via DHA.
Song C, Shieh C, Wu Y, et al: The role of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids in the treatment of major depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Progress in Lipid Research 2016; January 4th.
A Cure for Dry Eyes: Researchers at Keio University School of Medicine in Tokyo might have discovered a cure for dry eyes. Placebos or supplements containing fish oil, lactoferrin, zinc, lutein, gamma aminobutanoic acid, and vitamins C and E were given to 40 volunteers between the ages of 22- and 59-years-old. Tear production was assessed in the volunteers at the start and at weeks four and eight. In a second study, rats received the combined dietary supplement while dry eye was induced. Results showed that the supplements improved tear production in the rats as well as in the volunteers with confirmed dry eye.
Kawashima M, Nakamura S, Izuta Y, et al: Dietary supplementation with a combination of lactoferrin, fish oil, and enteroccocus faecium WB200 for treating dry eye. The Ocular Surface 2016; January 18th.
The Cognition Combo: The combination of B vitamins and the omega-3 DHA improves cognition, according to a study from the University of Oslo in Norway. A previous study in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) had found that B vitamin supplementation lowered homocysteine levels and slowed the rate of cognitive decline. The researchers used data from this study to see if baseline omega-3 status interacted with B vitamin treatment in 266 patients with MCI. Results showed that patients who had been treated with B vitamins and also had good omega-3 status at the start of the study showed the best cognition, while 60% of those treated with B vitamins who had low omega-3 status showed no benefits from B vitamin supplementation. Higher blood levels of the omega-3 DHA significantly enhanced the cognitive effects of B vitamins, while levels of the omega-3 EPA were less effective. The researchers conclude that, “…when omega-3 fatty acid concentrations are low, B vitamin treatment has no effect on cognitive decline in patients with MCI, but when omega-3 levels are in the upper normal range, B vitamins interact to slow cognitive decline.”
Oulhaj A, Herneren F, Refsum H, et al: Omega-3 fatty acid status enhances the prevention of cognitive decline by B vitamins in mild cognitive impairment. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 2016; January 6th.
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Food & Mood Tip-
Beware the Quick Fix
A candy bar or a cup of coffee is a quick pick-me-up, but you’re probably undermining your energy level if you are fueling your day with these sugar- and caffeine-packed foods. Granted, a cup of coffee revs the nervous system, focusing your concentration, improving your reaction times, and energizing your mood. However, overdo it by drinking more than two or three cups a day and the first symptom of caffeine withdrawal is fatigue. If you are riding the caffeine roller coaster of highs and lows by drinking coffee, tea, or colas throughout the day, you will experience an improvement in sustained energy if you cut back or cut out these caffeine-rich beverages.
Mood-Boosting Recipe of the month-
Ginger Squash (from The Food & Mood Cookbook by Elizabeth Somer and Jeanette Williams)
This butternut squash has so much zing it is a great accompaniment to both Asian dishes and blander fare. It also is packed full of antioxidants, such as beta carotene, that protect delicate brain cells from damage, and is a good source of iron, which helps carry oxygen to your memory banks.
1 1/2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into strips or cubes (approximately 4 cups raw)
2 tablespoons orange juice concentrate
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Salt and pepper
1/3 cup crystalline ginger
Steam squash until tender, approximately 10 minutes.
Stir in orange juice, maple syrup, ginger, and nutmeg. Stir until thoroughly blended and squash is partially mashed. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with crystalline ginger. Serve hot. (Makes 4 half-cup servings.)
Nutritional Analysis per 1 /2 cup: 110 Calories; 1% fat (<0.5 grams); 0 grams saturated fat; 4% protein; 95% carbohydrate; 3 grams fiber.
Your Nutrition Questions Answered
Is it best to eat small meals and snacks throughout the day for weight loss?
Yes and no. Some studies find that frequent mini-meals and snacks help with weight loss, while others find just the opposite. Eating when you are comfortably hungry helps you stay in control of your appetite and make better food decisions, while skipping meals and waiting until you are ravenous often leads to overeating and making the wrong choices. That said, it is best to tailor your food intake to your lifestyle and hunger, rather than try to force fit an alien eating style into your life. In the long run, it is total calories, not how they are consumed that will make a mark on the scale.
Calories are not a problem as long as you are choosing only healthy foods, right?
I wish!! Granted, healthy foods, such as fresh colorful fruits and vegetables, plain 100% whole grains, nonfat milk or yogurt, and cooked dried beans and peas, are typically low in calories and high in nutrients that fill us up on fewer calories, such as fiber, fluid, and protein. It’s also unlikely you’ll gain weight on lettuce and carrots! That said, eat huge portions of healthy foods and don’t exercise enough and those extra calories will be stored as body fat.
See Next Month for Answers to These Questions?
Are there certain foods you should eat every day?
To cut calories, should I switch to fat-free salad dressing?
Food Finds/Food Fails:
1. Lemons: They are packed with vitamin C and phytonutrients, such as limonene and flavonoids, that block cancer growth. Plus, drizzle lemon juice on almost anything, from asparagus to salmon, and you won’t need blood pressure-raising salt. Add to tea, marinades, smoothies, and tossed or fruit salads.
2. Old Fashioned Oatmeal: It’s a whole grain with an extra punch. Not only is it a great source of vitamins and minerals, but the fiber in oats is a soluble fiber that helps maintain normal blood sugar and healthy cholesterol levels. Skip the instant, flavored oatmeal, which are packed with sugar, have less fiber, and cost twice as much. Then, cook in nonfat or low-fat milk and you’ll have a breakfast that will fill you up on few calories.
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1. Oscar Meyer Turkey Bacon: Don’t think you’re doing yourself any favors by switching from regular bacon to turkey bacon. Each dinky 15 gram slice contains 140 milligrams of sodium and a gram of artery-clogging saturated fat, followed by a long list of sodium phosphates, sodium nitrates, and more. Processed meats such as this have been clearly linked to heart disease, inflammation, cancer, and more.
2. Morning Star Buffalo Wings: The package says 50% less fat, so regular wings must be the fat equivalent of butter, since these greasy little wings are 41% fat calories. The space left by the few fat grams they removed was taken up by sodium with one serving packing in a third of your day’s requirement for this blood pressuring raising mineral. Then there is the ingredient list which almost should require two pages to complete. The bottom line is – there are no short cuts when it comes to junk food. Skip anything with “buffalo” or “wing” in the title.
This Month’s Menu Ideas:
Put know how into practice with this simple, nutritious meal plan. Eliminate the snacks if you want to cut additional calories. And, with all the menus in my newsletter, feel free to tweak to your food preferences and choices.
1 cup shredded wheat with 1 /2 cup 1% low-fat milk
1cup orange juice
1 cup watermelon chunks
Herb or regular tea
1 Mango, peeled and sliced and topped with fresh lime juice, 1 tsp.
1 ounce almonds
Pita pocket sandwich:1 whole wheat pita pocket bread filled with: 1 ounce Jalapeno cheese,
1 diced fresh tomato, 2 Tbsp. grated zucchini, 1 /2 cup drained canned kidney beans
2 cups Fat-free microwave popcorn
4 ounces Grilled salmon fillet
1 serving Ginger Squash
2 cups steamed asparagus
Carrot-Raisin-Apple Salad: 1 cup grated carrot, 1 Tbsp. raisins, 1 /2 chopped apple, 2 Tbsp. mayonnaise, and lemon juice and salt/pepper to taste
1 cup frozen seedless grapes
1 cup 1% low-fat milk, heated and flavored with almond extract
Nutritional information: 2021 calories, 26%t fat (58 grams), 59% carbohydrates, 15% protein, 36 grams fiber