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Go High Energy: Nutrition Tips to Keep You Lively Throughout the Day

By L.K. Regan

Sometimes, the days seem very long and keeping your energy up in the middle of a long workday seems nearly impossible. That drag after lunch. That mid-afternoon drowsiness. How can you avoid getting so tired without constantly taking on board huge quantities of sugar and caffeine? To get answers on keeping up your energy without ruining your healthy diet, we spoke to Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD, CSSD, one of the leading nutritionists in the San Francisco Bay Area, creator of the RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs, and founder of the interactive weight-management web site Nutrition for You. He told us the basics on how to get through the day with consistent energy.

Villacorta tells us that he hears all the time from people who have recently begun his Nu4You nutrition program that they have "so much energy they don't even know what to do with themselves." That's because, he says, his program recommendations are "in line with what nutrition research tells us about how to improve energy naturally. And that's important because one of the biggest complaints clients come to us hoping to have addressed is feeling sluggish, tired, and low in energy throughout the day." Does that sound like you? If so Villacorta has some concrete nutritional suggestions. But first, he advises us all to examine our basic health and lifestyle habits.

Wake Up, Sleepyhead!
"Before we can talk nutrition," Villacorta says, "we need to talk about sleep. Just cutting your rest by one hour per day will have a huge negative effect on your energy." Villacorta doesn't recommend a particular number of hours per night; each person will have his own individual sleep needs."I need six hours per night," he tells us. "If I sleep five I feel it. But six might be too little for someone else. We all have our own needs, and what's important is to recognize that if we don't meet them for a few days, no matter how good our nutrition, we will feel tired just from lack of sleep."

There are also chronic conditions that will leave one constantly fatigued: fibro-myalgia, for example, or diabetes. Low-level depression and anxiety, those less easily spotted, will also cause fatigue. If you cannot get a handle on your exhaustion, Villacorta warns that you need to look at these conditions and rule them out.

So let's assume you are sleeping enough, and have addressed any possible underlying medical conditions. Now it's appropriate to take a look at your nutrition. But nutrition has to be looked at within the context of its larger effect on body systems, viewed holistically. In other words, you don't just want to eat foods that pump you up—you've been trying that with coffee, and it just briefly spikes your energy while giving you the jitters. You want to creat through nutrition a consistently high level of energy. And for that, Villacorta says, there are a few ideas appearing in the recent literature that can help.

  1. Clear your mind: Recent research indicates, Villacorta tells us, "If you improve your cognition, you improve your energy. A clearer mind makes you more energetic. And to improve cognition, you want to eat Omega-3 fatty acids. The anti-oxidants in food help with brain function and memory. So plan to eat extra servings of fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Particularly good sources are flax seeds, walnuts, and soybeans. Aim for six to eight ounces of salmon per week. And if you don't get these regularly, at least supplement your diet with fish oil." All of this will help keep your head clear and your mind engaged, and keep you from getting so tired in the first place.
  2. Work it out: "For the RealJock community," Villacorta says, "it's particularly important to be aware of the need for both a pre- and post-exercise meal." There are differences in those meals at the margins—for a body-builder's version of resistance training versus or a marathoner's endurance workouts—but for the average exerciser, Villacorta says, a general pre- and post-workout meal plan is simple to put together. "And if you don't do it," he warns, "it can deplete your sugars so badly that you will feel tired for the rest of the day." He councils that at least one hour before working out, guys should eat anywhere from 20 to 30 grams of carbohydrates and 15 to 20 grams of protein. That might be, for instance, a banana and a yoghurt, or a slice of whole-wheat bread with low-fat cheese. Post-exercise, within 15 to 30 minutes of finishing the workout, plan to eat 30 grams of carbohydrates and 25 to 35 grams of protein. The tricky part, Villacorta says, "is the timing. This so often gets skipped or eaten too late. And if it's three hours later, it's not a post-exercise meal, it's just your regular next meal of the day." So plan to bring a turkey sandwich, or a banana and cheese, to the gym with you. And if you are really pressed for time, Villacorta says, it's okay to have a shake, "So long as it is one that has both carbs and protein."
  3. Eat enough of the right stuff: To keep your energy up throughout the day, Villacorta says, you need both "enough calories and right calories. If we don't eat enough and then go work out, the exercise will create sluggishness. So, you need to eat according to your energy balance. That means, for one thing, no skipping food groups—you need to combine carbs, proteins, and healthy fats across your diet and, ideally, at every meal. But trying not to eat carbs, or not to eat fat, will have seriously devestating consequences for your energy levels." Likewise, skipping meals is a no-go. In particular, breakfast every day, within an hour of waking up. "You were fasting all night while you were sleeping," Villacorta says. "It is so important to break that fast as soon as possible after waking up, and to do so with a balance of carbohydrates, fiber, and protein." In other words, if you have yoghurt, have fruit with it; if you have bread, have egg whites or cheese. As for the rest of the day, Villacorta reminds us that even if it's a long day at the office and dinner will be late, we need to remember to eat."It's really key," he says, "to avoid fasting for too long. The best thing is to eat every three hours, since this levels out blood sugar spikes, and not eat too much at a time because that will slow you down." How much does that mean in concrete terms? For guys, Villacrorta advises that lunch in general should be 600 to 700 calories, while dinner is 500 to 700 calories. "More than that at one time," he says, "and you're dumping too many calories all at once. It really takes a toll for the body to process all that, and you will inevitably feel tired." Finally, refined carbohydrates (that's not just white bread but noodles or white rice, too) may give you a spurt of energy shortly after they are eaten because they send your blood glucose up. But, Villacorta says, "A surge of insulin will come to knock down the sugar, and will linger after the sugar is absorbed. That will give you low blood sugar, and that in turn will make both fatigued and prematurely hungry again."
  4. Drink the right fluids: Sometimes fatigue is actually dehydration, but you may not feel thirsty and therefore don't know to address it. Villacorta doesn't think you need to spend all day at the water cooler, though. "If you take in enough fruits and vegetables and healthy soups," he says, "you should be able to drink five to six cups of water per day and stay well-hydrated." Alcohol, on the other hand, is to be avoided, particularly in large doses. "Alcohol is a depressant," Villacorta reminds us, "so of course it contributes to low energy. If you feel tired on Monday after a party weekend, there's a reason. Binge drinking will wear you down." Not to mention the fact that alcohol dehydrates the body.
Follow these handy tips, and you should be able to keep your eyes open through the entire day. Who knows what you've been missing?