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The components of food can influence our perception of energy levels through different mechanisms, be it via the metabolic breakdown of food releasing energy for day-to-day activities, the provision of micro components that allow metabolism to take place or through stimulation of the brain and central nervous system (CNS) making us feel more alert. These could all be seen as potentially 'energy-boosting', which is a popular phrase commonly used to describe certain foods.
In terms of actual energy provision, carbohydrate and fat are the primary sources of energy in the foods we eat and although more limited, protein can also be used if required. Throughout exercise, fuel use depends on the intensity and duration of that performed. During high-intensity bouts of exercise carbohydrate is the predominant fuel compared to longer duration lower intensity exercise where fat use increases. The brain and CNS rely on carbohydrate as a major energy source but is adaptable and can also use fat (ketones).1, 2
Many of the micronutrients in food play important biological functions in the metabolic processes producing energy, for example, many of the B vitamins are co-factors in the pathways of energy metabolism. The omega 3 fats found in some foods are essential for normal brain function and may impact mood and cognition.3 Some food constituents can act as CNS stimulants and induce a feeling of energy and alertness. Caffeine found in coffee, tea and chocolate is such an example and many studies have found a beneficial effect of caffeine on sports performance.4
Considering the complex pathways that are involved in energy production, mood and feelings of well being with more than 40 nutrients considered essential, the logical approach is to consume a varied mixed diet including all food groups, to allow systems influencing 'energy levels' to function optimally. There are no single magic foods that will enable this to happen but there are many good examples that can contribute to these multifaceted processes, a sample of which are listed below.
A great source of low glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrate, rich in soluble fibre to help regulate blood glucose and sustain energy levels for longer. A good source of magnesium, needed for muscle and nerve function, zinc to support immunity and manganese involved in carbohydrate and fat metabolism.
Another good source of low GI carbohydrate for longer-lasting energy, plus fibre to support healthy gastrointestinal function. Contains vitamin C, Beta-carotene and vitamin A, which can aid iron absorption, important for oxygen transport and energy production.
Vitamin A: 855μg
Beta Carotene: 5140μg
Vitamin C: 23mg
A good quality protein source, providing amino acids integral to metabolic pathways. Provides a well-absorbed source of iron and vitamin B12 for red blood cell formation, oxygen transport and energy production. Provides niacin, a key component in fat and carbohydrate oxidation.
Niacin equivalent: 12.9mg
Vitamin B12: 2μg
Another great protein-rich food plus an important source of EPA/DHA (omega 3 fats) impacting brain function, mood and a sense of well being. A rare source of vitamin D, which is key for neuromuscular function and may impact the quality of your gym workout.
Vitamin D: 8.5μg (340IU)
As well as providing an additional boost of protein, almonds are an important source of calcium and potassium important for muscle contraction, plus phosphorus a key component of the body’s energy currency ATP and phosphocreatine.
Vitamin E: 11.9mg
A great source of well-absorbed calcium for muscle contraction and maintaining bone health (phosphorus and protein also important here) both of which influence the ability to stay energetic and active. Riboflavin is a key player in the pathway of energy production.
One of the highest vitamin C content of the berries, important for immune function and iron absorption which impacts sense of well-being and the energy production pathways respectively. Also contains folate, which promotes red blood cell formation necessary for oxygen transport. A useful source of fibre for gut health and low GI carbohydrate, great as a small mid-afternoon pick me up. An average 300g portion providing 18g carbohydrate. Add Greek yoghurt and nuts/banana for a more substantial snack.
Vitamin C: 57mg
An easy to eat energy-boosting snack providing low GI carbohydrate although becomes higher GI if overripe (useful in some sporting situations if a faster acting carbohydrate is needed). Also a good source of potassium needed for muscle contraction.
Bursting with many of the components need to generate energy in the body either through oxygen transport via red blood cells (iron, folate) plus absorption of iron (vitamin A, C, beta carotene) and also via nerve function and muscle contraction (potassium, calcium).
Vitamin C: 29mg
Vitamin A: 260μg
Beta Carotene: 1559μg
Water accounts for 50-60% body mass and even mild dehydration can be associated with reductions in cognitive function, mood, mental readiness5 and lead to feelings of fatigue. If you struggle to drink water during the day infuse it with fresh lemons, lime, mint, cucumber or whatever fruit you enjoy to encourage you to drink more regularly.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible, supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.
1Jeukendrup, A, Gleeson M (2010). Sport Nutrition: an introduction to energy production and performance, 2nd ed., Human Kinetics
2MacLaren D, Morton J (2012). Biochemistry for sport and exercise metabolism, Wiley-Blackwell
3Gómez-Pinilla F (2008). Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function, Departments of Neurosurgery and Physiological Science, University of California
4Meeusen R (2014). Exercise, Nutrition and the Brain, Department of Human Physiology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
5Shirreffs S, Sawka M. (2011). Fluid and electrolyte needs for training, competition, and recovery, Society of Sports Sciences