Take a little test for us. Let's assume it's an average workday, and it's around 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon. How many cups of coffee have you had? And are you feeling like you need another one? Many of us rely on coffee, or caffeinated drinks such as sodas, to get through the day feeling alert. While small amounts of caffeine are not bad for you and may in fact provide some health benefits, too much caffeine—and let's be clear, many people drink far too much caffeine—is not particularly good for you, and it dehydrates your body as well. On the other hand, you can't very well afford to fall asleep at your desk, so many of us overdo the caffeine just to get through the workday, leaving our bodies more tired and depleted the next day. It's a vicious cycle.
Don't despair—you can reduce your reliance on caffeine and still have an alert brain. How do you do it? By thinking less about stimulants and more about overall nutrition. To help you achieve this goal, we spoke to Emily Bender, a certified nutrition consultant, author, and member of the faculty of the Hawthorn Health and Nutrition Institute, and asked her for some foods you can eat or drink during the day to perk yourself up without hitting your local Starbucks. We even got recipes.
Don't Stop, Drop, and Quit
First, Bender suggests that you not go cold turkey on the lattes. "Caffeine is addictive," she points out, "so when you stop consuming it you'll feel awful, and very spaced out. Reduce slowly—if you usually drink three cups of coffee a day, go down to two and a half, then to two—but seriously, go slow."
Avoid Crashes: Combine Carbs, Protein, and Fat
As you reduce your caffeine intake, take a look at your overall nutrition, and see if you're not putting yourself into an energy deficit through your diet. Bender points out that many of us use caffeine to dig out of a blood sugar crash that we ourselves have caused, by eating carbohydrates and sugars that cause an initial spike in blood sugar followed by a brutal come-down. And that's when we reach for the coffee pot.
Avoiding that crash starts at breakfast and continues throughout the day. Have an egg with your toast, so you don't take in the carbs in an unadulterated lump. "The brain's food is glucose," Bender says, "but you don't need all the brain's food in a 30-minute shot—you need it to arrive in a measured fashion, so you can actually use it." To maintain that metabolic consistency, and keep glucose coming to your brain in level doses, make sure to combine your carbohydrates with fat and protein at every meal.
This goes for snacks during the day as well. Most of the food products you probably have available to eat at your office come in the form of carbs, often heavily refined, processed, and sugary. If you want to cut back on the coffee, start packing snacks that keep you fuelled.
Snack Smart: Think Like a Parent
Bender suggests a simple logic—eat the snacks parents make for their kids. Most parents don't pack bags of candy, cookies, pastries, and chips for their kids' midday snack, so why should you eat these at the office? "Peanut butter and celery is a great snack, for example," she says, "and that's why moms feed it to kids, because it keeps their blood sugar at an even keel, and keeps away the tantrums and hyperactivity." Bender's other made-for-kids, great-for-adults suggestions include yogurt and berries, or a banana and some walnuts. Whatever your snack, remember you want to include protein and fat to offset and prevent the inevitable carb crash.
Go Green... Or Really Green
But maybe you like having that cup of coffee at your desk—a nice hot beverage you can sip (and potentially spill on your keyboard). If you're willing to have a little caffeine, green tea makes a great substitute. It contains small amounts of caffeine, but is rich in antioxidants, so it helps restore your body.
Or try green powders. Green powders are supplements made from nutrient-rich greens in concentrated form. They come in different varieties, including spirulina and chlorella (both made from algae), and barley or wheat grass. Which you use depends to some extent on which flavor you find most palatable. Wheat grass comes in either a liquid or powder form, and many people like the taste. Bender finds chlorella the best on its own, and spirulina more suited for a smoothie. To reconstitute chlorella, she recommends putting it in a glass of water and giving it 20 minutes to dissolve. "If you're feeling seriously depleted, green powders really help," Bender says.
Eat Your Nettles... Or Drink Them
For a big energy boost, Bender recommends stinging nettles. The name sounds horrible, but Bender assures us that when cooked or dried, these nettles lose their sting and become completely painless to consume. They are very popular, Bender says, in Eastern Europe, especially among food-deprived populations, precisely because they are so high in nutrients. "Stinging nettles," Bender says, "are like a mineral supplement. They're high in iron, and have hormone-balancing properties that can be especially beneficial for women; and they support the adrenal gland. They're great."
You can purchase stinging nettles at most health food stores, either in their dried form or in tea bags. Traditional Medicinals makes a stinging nettle tea bag that Bender recommends, or you can make your own. Put three-fourths of a cup of dried nettles in a one-quart jar, and fill the jar with cold water. Tightly lid the jar and put it in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, you'll have a nettle brew that you can heat to replace coffee. Or, you can use the nettles in a hot infusion, pouring boiling water over them and letting them sit for an hour to make a strong, mineral-rich tea.
Whether or not you want to try out the stinging nettles, eating brain food to get you through the day needs to be part of an overall program of metabolic balance and a nutrient-rich diet. "The overall picture of being alert is really about how your whole body is functioning—and that's what you want to focus on," says Bender. Try to eat whole foods wherever possible, and combine them in balance, with carbohydrates, fats, and proteins all represented in every meal and snack you eat. Cut back on your caffeine consumption in combination, and you'll go a long way toward greater alertness during the day. But we also really hope you'll try the nettles.