Fatigue Busting Foods
Anyone that’s ever attempted a dietary detox will know one of the hardest aspects is adjusting to the withdrawal effects of pick-me-ups such as coffee and chocolate. There are headaches and hunger pangs, and without caffeine, many people experiencce an overwhelming feeling of fatigue, particularly around mid afternoon, when blood sugar levels traditionally take a nose dive and we reach for the caffeine and cookie jar.
Busy parents with very young children can almost certainly relate to this mid-afternoon slump, and if you’re a student cramming for exams, it’s likely you’re looking to quick-fix with sugary snacks and caffeinated drinks to see you through the long hours and to focus attention.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were healthier alternatives to caffeine and sugar in order to beat that mid-day fatigue? Well, happily, alternatives do exist – and they’re available on the shelves of your grocery store. A surprising number of foods not only pack a nutritious punch but also boost energy levels naturally and safely.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
The trick to feeling more awake throughout the day is to understand how the various food groups convert once they hit our stomachs. Most people are aware that carbohydrates give us energy, but there is so much disinformation, fear and loathing surrounding the humble carb that many choose to forgo this food group almost entirely, which is probably the worst way to fight bouts of daytime fatigue. Traditionally, most of us reach for processed, low fiber, sugary carbs with a high glycemic load, such as French fries, white bread, cakes and pasta. We feel full right after eating these and we get a much needed energy boost, but like a teen infatuation, it’s not for keeps: most of the energy received from these foods comes from sugars. It’s what ultimately causes us to pile on the pounds and sends our blood sugar tanking again once the high has worn off.
Complex carbohydrates (that’s whole grains and starch-heavy vegetables such as potatoes and squash) are what we should be focusing on. The ‘complex’ part is a clue to their function – they take a while to break down because they contain more fiber – but that’s a good thing because it means this slower process ensures a steady release of energy throughout the day, and less of the ‘dips’ which cause hunger pangs and affect the brain’s ability to concentrate, often resulting in quick fix snacking later in the day. Complex carbs produce an anchoring effect, so avoid simple carbs before noon and instead include a healthy sized portion of whole grains or natural starch at breakfast and lunch. It’s the best way to sustain energy levels throughout the day.
But just to confuse things somewhat, not all simple carbohydrates are bad. Fruit contains fructose; a naturally occurring sugar that provides an energy burst in much the same way refined sugar does, but of course, there’s a bunch of good things to be gained from eating fruit. Fruit, therefore, makes an ideal pick-me-up later in the day, and a far healthier alternative to sweets, sodas and processed sugary snacks.
Three Carbohydrates for Energy:
Quinoa – It’s become painfully trendy over the last few years, but quinoa really does combines the best of all worlds. It’s got healthy complex carbohydrates while being rich in protein too, and is particularly delicious when eaten in a salad.
Soybeans – lightly blanched soy (edamame) beans sprinkled with a little salt make a fantastic energy-giving snack. Not only are they a healthy source of complex carbs, but soybeans also contain essential omega-3 fatty acids and proteins; all important energy boosters.
Fresh figs – rich in complex carbohydrates and yet registering as only moderate on the glycemic index, figs will give you the sweet fix you crave while providing a sustained energy burst, but crucially, they won’t send your blood sugars into freefall afterwards. Figs’ B vitamins, minerals and cholesterol busting pectin fiber won’t do you any harm either.
Ironing Out Symptoms of Fatigue
Iron deficiency is a surprisingly common complaint, particularly among the young, and is the leading cause of anemia in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Fatigue is a symptom of anemia, along with the inability to focus or maintain energy levels. A simple approach is to eat an iron- fortified breakfast cereal every morning. Red meat, fish (particularly fresh clams) and poultry all contain heme iron, which is more readily absorbed by the body, while plant based foods such as spinach, baked potatoes, tofu and cooked beans contain non-heme iron, which although nutritious, remain slightly harder to absorb. A good tip is to pair iron-rich non-heme foods with a vitamin C rich addition, such as tomatoes or citrus fruits, because the vitamin C helps with absorption. Another simple tip is to cook pasta sauces in an iron pan to bump up iron content.
The Protein Question
Protein isn’t just for bodybuilders looking to bulk up. In fact, it is another important fatigue-busting requirement of a healthy diet, but one that is often overlooked. Protein plays a critical role in the body’s functions and acts as a key building block for our cells and organs. It also helps to regulate our endocrine system, which secretes hormones to keep us healthy and balanced – including the release of insulin from the pancreas, which controls our blood glucose levels. It’s a delicate balancing act, but ensuring we get enough easily digested protein in the form of (low fat) dairy, fish, chicken, beans, nuts and eggs is vital to keep blood sugar balanced. It’s particularly important to include some protein at breakfast because carbs alone will leave you wanting long before lunch comes around. Oily fish such as mackerel, trout and sardines contain Omega-3 fatty acids too, essential for healthy brain function and for maintaining alertness.
Three Great Protein Boosters:
Yogurt – a low fat yogurt will provide essential protein, calcium, B vitamins and, if you choose a probiotic option, friendly bacteria to help balance the gut and aid digestion.
Sushi or Sashimi – a serving of raw fish such as tuna or wild salmon is not only high in protein but also contains essential minerals, fatty acids and vitamins. Be careful, though, because while a great nutritional source, these types of fish are high in mercury and therefore best consumed no more than a couple times a week.
Nuts – a handful of protein-rich unsalted peanuts, pistachios or almonds is a great way to enjoy a healthy between-meals snack while staving off hunger pangs, but they do contain fats and so, as with potato chips, it’s advisable to take it easy if you want to avoid adding excess pounds.
Bio-Flavonoids – A Berry Good Idea
Slow release carbs and balancing proteins are all well and good, but sometimes you need instant craving gratification, and that’s where bio-flavonoids come in. Flavonoids are the antioxidant-rich compounds found in many plants such as red bell peppers, citrus fruits, tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, spinach and Brussels sprouts, and can also be found in green tea and even dark chocolate (yes, you heard that right, but just a piece or two of the bitter variety with at least 70 percent cocoa content).
Much has been written about the health benefits of antioxidants, but the stimulating, brain-boosting qualities of flavonoids make them the perfect natural pick-me-up too. Various studies have proved a strong link between flavonoids and improved cognitive function thanks to their stimulating effect on blood flow. A freshly blended berry smoothie made with low fat yoghurt is a great way to add protein and a dose of perky flavonoids to refocus attention.
Three Flavonoid-Rich Foods for Improved Focus:
Blueberries – one of nature’s true superfoods, blueberries contain very high levels of antioxidants and research has shown that a serving of blueberries will have a lasting effect on concentration levels for up to five hours after being enjoyed.
Green tea – although green tea still contains caffeine, these levels are significantly lower than in coffee or black tea, and so if you really can’t face life without a liquid jolt, this is the healthier way to get a daily infusion of caffeine. And thanks to its beneficial antioxidant properties, that green tea will also be working to mop up free radicals while providing cardiovascular and brain boosting benefits too.
Spinach – you can never get enough of the green stuff, and spinach is packed full of vitamins and minerals alongside the flavonoids which have been shown to significantly improve cognitive function. An egg and spinach omelet or quiche is a fantastic way to hit all the nutritional spots and keep you focused for hours. You could also try adding raw spinach leaves to a lunchtime salad or freshly blended berry-rich smoothie.