The majority of eating advice centres on losing weight. Instead, let’s look at how changing what you eat can help fend off mid-day energy slumps and blah feelings from your work day.
Most people are aware, in some sense, of how what they eat impacts how they feel. Hardly a kid escapes childhood without learning what binging on post-Christmas candy cane feels like, and we’ve all experienced the post-holiday meal call to hibernation. But regular food affects our body and energy throughout the day, even within a few hours. Here are a few examples of how eating impacts your energy levels, and what you can do to get more out of your daily fuel.
Structure Your Daily Diet Like a Pyramid
A significant number of people eat lightly (if at all) in the morning, heavier in the afternoon, and top the day off with a hearty dinner (and dessert). The problem with this method is that it deprives you of food when you need it most, and loads it on when you need it least. When you wake up in the morning, 6-8 hours without food or water is when you would most benefit from a hearty meal, not when you’re cruising towards bed time. When planning your meals for the day, visualise them like a pyramid — not the food pyramid, although knowing more about that certainly helps. Consider your day like building a pyramid of food. Breakfast is the base — large and filling — and your evening snack is the tiny tip. Photo by Yasin Hassan.
Eat Protein Early On
Just inverting the order of things will go a long way towards helping your workday energy reserves, but it’s not enough. In addition to increasing your early morning calorie intake and decreasing your evening calorie intake, you need to incorporate protein. Nearly all cases of mid-morning blahs, afternoon space-outs and general exhaustion at work — ruling out that you stayed up all night with friends, or a sick child — can be attributed to low blood sugar. If you grab a cup of coffee and a bagel at 7.30am on your way to work, caffeine and carbohydrates offer a powerful but short-lived energy boost. It’s almost a guarantee that by 10.30am you’ll either be spacing out at your desk or heading down the hall to raid the vending machine for a quick and equally carbohydrate-laden pick-me-up. Photo by Nathan Borror.
This isn’t to say that carbohydrates are bad; you need them to live and for basic brain functioning. A diet comprised mainly of carbohydrates, however, is a recipe for a constant cycle of blood sugar highs, lows and the accompanying feelings of exhaustion that go with them. If carbohydrates are the kindling of your metabolism, protein is the slow burning old-growth wood that keeps you going. The following charts illustrate, albeit in a simplified form, the difference in blood sugar levels after eating carbohydrate-heavy meals and protein-heavy meals.
Ideally your blood sugar and energy levels should be slow and steady like the bottom graph, not swinging wildly up and down like the top graph. You don’t need to give up on bread or never drink juice with breakfast again, but work on getting more protein in your morning routine. If you look at the order you’re about to place at the cafe or the meal you’re about to cook at home and your response to “Where is the protein?” is “Uh, somewhere?”, you need to add some in. Here are some quick ideas for ways you can incorporate protein into your breakfast:
- Scramble, fry, poach, hard boil or otherwise eat eggs. The protein content is high and it’s a good source of fat and vitamin A.
- Buy a container of protein power and mix a protein shake to accompany your regular breakfast. High-protein breakfast shakes are extremely popular, and a basic Google search turns up more breakfast shake recipes than you could drink if you had a shake every day of your life.
- Skip the cereal or switch to high-protein breakfast cereals like those offered by Kashi.
- Try peanut butter, sweetened with a little honey, instead of jam on your toast.
- Yoghurt is a great source of protein. Try getting plain/unsweetened yoghurt and adding in fresh fruit. The fruit-at-the-bottom kind is packed with sugar.
Eat Low Glycaemic Index Foods
Both for breakfast and the subsequent snacks and meals, focus on low glycaemic index foods. The glycaemic index, contrary to fad diets that try to make it so, is not an end-all eating guide. It is, however, a very useful guide for measuring how quickly the food you eat will be turned into glucose. Unlike people with diabetes or hypoglycaemia, you don’t need to commit the index to memory for your personal safety, but it helps to read it over and be aware of where foods fall. High GI foods like white bread, white rice and most cereals are easily converted into glucose in your body. Low GI foods like most vegetables, whole grains, meat, milk, nuts and eggs are converted much slower. Steer yourself towards Low GI foods, and you’ll iron out most of the bumps in your daily blood sugar. Photo by Rich Audet.
If you’re eating once in the morning right after you wake up, then in the middle of the work day, and then again when you finally get home at the end of the day and scrape together a meal, you’re doing it wrong. You need to eat frequently, ideally every 2-3 hours. This doesn’t mean you need a super-sized Sonic Burger meal several times during the work day. Eat a snack that’s high in protein and complex carbohydrates between your regular meals. Cottage cheese, fruit, yoghurt, tuna, hard-boiled eggs, protein bars, an apple with peanut butter and trail mix (heavy on the nuts, not the dried fruit and candy) are all great high-protein snacks. Photo by Nick Sarebi.
Ideally you want to your daily blood sugar levels to look like that nice gentle wave seen in the chart above, not a graph of the last 10 years on the Dow Jones.
Stop Dehydrating Yourself
Dehydration isn’t a binary situation — you are either extremely well hydrated or clawing along a dry lake bed in Nevada, wondering why you wandered away from the tour group three days ago. The minor signs of dehydration include lethargy, headaches, muscle pain and a general sense of confusion. Fortunately, staying well hydrated is as simple as developing the habit of regularly drinking water. The worst case scenario for drinking a little too much water at work is having to hit up the bathroom a few more times than usual. The best case scenario is that you feel more energised. Photo by Steven Depolo.
Fortunately, picking up the water habit is easy. Buy a water container (if you can’t find one at your local shopping centre that fits your personality and water volume needs, you’re not looking hard enough), and keep it filled on your desk. The difference between drinking a litre of water every day (in addition to my normal coffee and drinking at meals) was simply putting a decanter on my desk and keeping it filled. If the water was there, I’d pour a glass and drink it while reading over my work. If it wasn’t there, I didn’t drink it. If you enjoy tracking things, check out our guide to graphing your life and use the techniques within to chart your water consumption. Alternatively, you could set a timer on your computer or wear a watch that beeps every hour to remind you to drink up.
One of the added benefits of increasing your water consumption is that you’ll inadvertently be cutting out less healthy fluids. You likely won’t have enough room to drink three containers worth of water and a couple Cokes too, so the less healthy drinks fall by the wayside.
Keep Track of Your Energy Levels
Tracking your energy levels is key to figuring out what works for you. Keep a simple log of the food you eat and the energy levels you have during the day. Pretty soon, patterns will start to emerge, like “Ate big breakfast of eggs, toast and protein shake: haven’t felt hungry or tired all morning”, “Skipped breakfast, had doughnut and coffee with Tim in the break room. Thinking about napping in the conference room before lunch”, and so on. Photo by Ganesha Isis.
Although we’re primarily concerned with energy and not with weight loss, most of our favourite weight management tools feature logging tools and personal metrics. The best match for our purposes is definitely FitDay. At FitDay you can log not only the food you eat and the fluids you drink, but also custom variables like level of energy, happiness and more. After you experiment with your diet and water intake, you can check out the graphs on FitDay to see how things shook out. Pair the FitDay charts with a simple text file journal that highlights the days events (so you can compare the good and bad days on the chart to the bigger things happening in your life) and you’ve got a solid tracking tool.
For another interesting way to keep track of your energy over the course of the week, check out how to use Excel to “energy map” your days.
Smooth your blood sugar with big helpings of protein and complex carbohydrates, cut the sugary snacks out and increase your water consumption, and you’ll be well on your way to keeping your head off your desk and ending the day bright-eyed.
For more ideas on staying energised during the day, beyond hacking your diet, check out our top 10 ways to stay energised. If you’ve got a favourite high-protein snack, let’s hear it in the comments.