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Energy boosting foods

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The food we eat each day impacts many physiological processes that can affect the way we perform both mentally and physically. Are you getting enough bang for your bite?

The components of food can influence our perception of energy levels through different mechanisms, whether through 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.

Primary energy sources

In terms of actual energy provision, carbohydrate and fat are the primary sources of energy in the foods we eat, and although more limited in terms of energy, protein can also be used if required. Throughout exercise, fuel use depends on the intensity and duration of the exercise performed.

During high-intensity bouts of exercise, carbohydrate is the predominant fuel, whereas in longer-duration lower-intensity exercise, fat use increases. The brain and CNS rely on carbohydrate as a major energy source, but they are also adaptable and can use fat (ketones).1, 2

Many micronutrients in food play important biological functions in the metabolic processes that produce 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

Energy boosters

Considering the complex pathways that are involved in energy production, mood, and feelings of wellbeing, 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. Some examples are listed below.

Rolled oats

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.

Per 100g
Energy381kcal
Carbohydrate71g
Fibre7.8g
Magnesium114mg
Zinc2.3mg
Manganese3.7mg

Sweet potato

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.

Per 100g
Energy115kcal
Carbohydrate28g
Fibre4.4g
Vitamin A855mcg
Beta Carotene5140mcg
Vitamin C23mg

Lean beef

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.

Per 100g
Energy188kcal
Protein29g
Iron2.3mg
Zinc5.2mg
Niacin equivalent12.9mg
Vitamin B122mcg

Mackerel

Another great protein-rich food, and an important source of EPA/DHA omega-3 fats, impacting brain function, mood and a sense of wellbeing. A rare source of vitamin D, which is key for neuromuscular function and may impact the quality of your gym workout.

Per 100g
Energy283kcal
Protein20g
EPA1.17g
DHA0.25g
Vitamin D8.5mcg (340IU)

Almonds

As well as providing an additional boost of protein, almonds are an important source of calcium and potassium important for muscle contraction. They also contain phosphorus: a key component of the body's energy currency ATP and ATP-recycler phosphocreatine.

Per 50g
Energy306kcal
Protein11g
Calcium120mg
Phosphorus275mg
Potassium390mg
Vitamin E11.9mg

Plain Greek yoghurt

A great source of well-absorbed calcium for muscle contraction and maintaining bone health (phosphorus and protein are 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.

Per 100g
Energy58kcal
Protein10g
Calcium110mg
Phosphorus135mg
Riboflavin0.3mg

Strawberries

Contain large amounts of vitamin C, important for immune function and iron absorption, which impacts the sense of wellbeing and energy production. 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 provides 18g carbohydrate. Add Greek yoghurt and nuts/banana for a more substantial snack.

Per 100g
Energy30kcal
Carbohydrate6g
Fibre3.8g
Vitamin C57mg
Folate61mcg

Bananas

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.

Per 100g (weight without skin)
Energy81kcal
Carbohydrate20g
Fibre1.4g
Potassium330mg

Spinach

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).

Per 100g
Energy16kcal
Potassium682mg
Calcium119mg
Iron1.8mg
Folate161mcg
Vitamin C29mg
Vitamin A260mcg
Beta Carotene1559mcg

Water

Water accounts for 50-60% of 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.