If you’ve ever eaten a giant bowl of cacio e pepe for lunch only to find yourself struggling to stay awake three hours later, you are not alone.
“Refined carbs, like pasta and bread, cause an immediate spike in blood sugar, which leads to a rapid rise in insulin, and then a swift plunge in blood sugar. This blood sugar roller coaster causes fatigue and drowsiness,” says Jeffrey Morrison, M.D., a New York City-based physician and certified nutritionist. The standard American diet of meat, cheese and highly refined, processed foods also destroys our gut and triggers inflammation throughout the body, sapping energy and health, according to longevity expert Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones Challenge.
So, what do experts say you should eat when you need a quick boost of energy? In general, fiber-rich complex carbs (think whole grains and brightly colored, antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies) are your best bet, because they can easily be converted to glucose for energy but they don’t cause insulin levels to surge, says Morrison. If you’re looking for a more slow-and-steady kind of energy, consider adding some lean protein to that plate of healthy whole-food carbs. This will keep your blood sugar more stable (and bolster your self-discipline when confronted with a cupcake at 4 p.m.).
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Of course, when it comes to energy, not all proteins are created equal. Buettner, who has exhaustively studied the eating behavior of the longest-living people around the world, emphasizes the importance of a mostly plant-based diet. His advice: Treat animal meat like a condiment. In Blue Zones — five places in the world where people don’t just live longer but are often active and relatively energetic well into their 90s — they eat very small portions of meat and fish, he says. If you are looking to increase your protein intake, he suggests grilling up some tofu: “Sauté it with some teriyaki sauce, and it tastes just like chicken.” Read on for five more energy-boosting superfoods.
Superfood No. 1: Purple Sweet Potatoes
The Japanese island of Okinawa has the highest concentration of centenarians in the world, and until 1970, two-thirds of their daily calories came from purple sweet potatoes, says Buettner. In addition to being high in fiber, these slow-burning complex carbs are loaded with energy-boosting phytonutrients. Their purple color comes from anthocyanins, the same free-radical-scavenging antioxidants that give blueberries their potent anti-inflammatory effect.
Superfood No. 2: Green Tea
Though green tea doesn’t contain very much caffeine (approximately 28 mg in an 8-ounce cup compared to 96 mg in coffee, according to the Mayo Clinic), it may give you a more even energy boost thanks to the presence of L-theanine, an amino acid that can reduce stress and improve cognitive functioning, according to a 2019 study published in Nutrients. “I can’t say enough about the health benefits of green tea, specifically the antioxidant EGCG, which is anti-cancer and helps protect memory,” says Morrison. Keep in mind: Adding green tea to your diet doesn’t mean you need to totally ditch coffee. Coffee is one of the biggest sources of antioxidants in the American diet. For a drink that often gets a bad health rap, the energizing, free-radical-scavenging brew boasts a shocking number of potential health benefits. A review of recent research published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition showed coffee may reduce your risk of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s and liver disease, among others.
Superfood No. 3: Beans and legumes
Like tofu, beans provide both fiber and protein, which help keep blood sugar stable so you don’t crash. “A cup of beans provides as much protein as a Quarter Pounder with none of the bad things,” says Buettner. (Fun fact: Eating a cup of beans per day has been shown to add four years to your life expectancy," he adds).
He recommends combining a whole grain like brown rice with beans so you get a complete protein. “Beans are like Mardi Gras in New Orleans for your microbiome,” he says. “Bacteria in your gut thrive on plant-based food. They don’t consume any protein; they only eat fiber.” The typical American diet causes these bacteria to starve, so they start eating the mucosal lining of the stomach. When the lining becomes more permeable, it creates an inflammatory (read: energy-cheating) condition known as leaky gut, wherein toxic fecal matter literally leaks into your bloodstream.
“Eating high-fiber foods like beans is like throwing a bucket of water onto that inflammation fire,” says Buettner. Try adding a half cup of lentils to your salad. High in iron, potassium, zinc and folate, these legumes are also a good source of selenium, a mineral that may be a natural mood enhancer. A study in the Journal of Biological Psychiatry linked low selenium levels to poorer moods. Low levels were also shown to increase brain fog and decrease energy, according to a study in the journal Movement Disorders.
Superfood No. 4: Beets
Beets are a great root vegetable for people to start eating, says Morrison. This may be especially true if eaten after parties or celebrations, as they’re “great for detoxing the liver,” an organ whose poor functioning often manifests in fatigue. Beets contain nitrates, which convert to nitric oxide, a molecule that “helps with cellular energy and circulation, says Morrison, noting that professional athletes will often drink beet juice before a run. “Studies have shown that people who drink beet juice before running have better sprinting times than people who don’t.”
Superfood No. 5: Steel-Cut Oatmeal
Gluten-free and high in fiber, this nutrient-dense whole grain also contains more fat and protein per gram than other grains, giving it a relatively low glycemic index. Translation: consistent energy with no wonky dips in blood sugar. Avoid quick-cooking flavored oats, which are highly processed and often filled with sugar. Though steel-cut oats take a bit longer to prepare, their nutty texture — and slow-digesting fiber — is well worth the wait. Another selling point: One cup of cooked oatmeal contains 61 mg of magnesium, a key mineral for energy production, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health. A cofactor in more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body, including breaking glucose down into energy, magnesium also helps promote deep, restorative sleep. And all the purple sweet potatoes in the world won’t put a spring in your step if you’re not getting a solid night’s shut-eye. As the English Elizabethan writer Thomas Dekker famously said, “Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.”
Amy Synnott is an award-winning writer and a former executive editor of Elle. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, InStyle, The New York Post and Women’s Health, among other publications.