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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Eating for Energy

One of the main concerns I see in my practice is people struggling with low energy. Nutrient deficiencies, lack of sleep, being busy, stressed, some medications and medical conditions can contribute to low energy or fatigue. Certain foods eaten the right combinations can help you to maximize energy levels. Read on for some tips to help make sure your nutrition is helping to give you energy, not drain you.  

Balanced meals at regular times
Try your best to eat at the same time each day and not to skip meals.
Meals should be balanced with protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats and this combination helps to keep blood sugar and energy levels stable. Some examples of balanced meals:

      - Oatmeal (carb) with Greek yogurt (protein) and berries (carb) and chia seeds (healthy fats)
      - Scrambled eggs (protein + fat) with veggies and whole grain toast (carbs) and avocado mashed on the toast (healthy fats)

      - Big salad with spinach, red peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, quinoa (carb) and sliced chicken 
        breast (protein) + oil and vinegar dressing (healthy fat)
      - Whole grain wrap (carbs) with tuna mixed with avocado + hummus (protein and healthy fats)
and raw veggies

      - Stirfry with lots of vegetables, lentils (carbs and protein) and brown rice or barley (carbs)
      - Grilled salmon (carbs and healthy fats) and roasted sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts and beets (carbs)

Snack smart to avoid long gaps between meals
Very long gaps between meals (more than about 5 or 6 hours) without eating can cause blood sugar to drop. When blood sugar is low, energy and concentration drop too. We may also start to get more cravings, feel “hangry” and reach for sugar. Prevent this from happening by eating every 3-4 hours. As an athlete, you likely need snacks to help you meet all of your nutrient needs and recover from exercise. Smart snacks have both carbs and protein. Carbs (the right ones) help to provide a small boost to your blood sugar and protein will help to stabilize it. Here are some balanced snack ideas:

      - Natural peanut butter and sliced apple
      - Cottage cheese and diced peaches or pineapple
      - Raw veggies dipped in hummus
      - Handful of raw nuts and seeds and an apple
      - Small can of tuna and whole grain crackers like Ryvita or Mary’s crackers
      - Hard boiled egg and fruit
      - Roasted chickpeas

Choose the right types of carbs
Slow-disgesting carbs that don’t cause large increases in blood sugar are your best bet. When you eat simple sugars, blood sugar spikes and then crashes soon after. The amount of carbs you eat is important as well. Carbohydrates provide the main source of energy during exercise and for our brains. When we go too low on the carbs, low energy and focus can be a side effect. The more active you are, the more you will need. Some examples are:

      - Starchy vegetables: Sweet potato, beets, squash,
      - Whole grains: quinoa, barley, brown rice, oatmeal
      - Fruit: All colours to get a range of nutrients 
      - Beans and legumes: Chickpeas, lentils, black beans, etc. These also provide protein.
      - Whole grain breads and pastas.

Note: Make the bulk of your carbohydrates from these foods.

Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables contain many vitamins and minerals important for the metabolism of energy, including B vitamins. They provide fibre to help us keep blood sugars stable. Aim to include fruits and vegetables at each meal and snack.

Eat until comfortably full, not stuffed
Skipping meals, eating while distracted or eating too quickly are just some things that can contribute to eating point of feeling very full, resulting in a sluggish feeling and indigestion. To help you slow down at meals, sit at a table and remove distractions. Eat regular meals and snacks so that you are not starving by the time meal starts.

Eat iron-rich foods
Iron is a component of hemoglobin, and transports oxygen from our lungs to working muscles. Some athletes may be more prone to having low iron, in particular marathon runners (with your feet constantly pounding the pavement can damage red blood cells) and endurance athletes (you can actually lose iron from heavy sweat losses). Fatigue on exertion can be a sign you may have low iron.
Some good sources of iron: beef, eggs, pork loin, turkey, tuna, cooked spinach, lentils, edamame, tofu, apricots, prune juice, refried beans, soy nuts, cream of wheat. Aim for variety in your diet to help meet your needs, and to help your body absorb the iron from plant foods, be sure to eat a food that contains vitamin C too (ex. strawberries, citrus, broccoli, peppers).

Eat Vitamin B12 rich foods
This is another nutrient that, if we are deficient, can cause fatigue. As we get older, our body is not as efficient at absorbing B12, so it may be useful to get your levels checked if you are consistently feeling fatigued. Foods rich in B12 include: Milk, cheese, yogurt, beef, pork, fish, nutritional yeast and fortified milk alternatives.

Drink up!
We’ve all heard our body is about 70% water, but it is also a main part of our blood and needed to carry nutrients to cells and remove waste products. Fatigue is a sign of dehydration. Be sure to replace fluids lost during exercise and drink throughout the day (carry a water bottle with you if you are prone to forgetting to drink). The colour of your urine can clue you in to how well hydrated you are – it should be a pale yellow.

Watch caffeine content
Caffeine can boost your energy, make you feel more alert and for some people, boost performance. But when we over consume caffeine and stimulants, it can have the opposite effect. Too much caffeine is greater than 400 mg per day (less if you are pregnant or breastfeeding), which is about 3 cups of coffee. But for some people, even this is too much.   

Whole Foods
Foods in their whole form or minimally processed will provide you with many nutrients to nourish and fuel your body. These will contain more vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients than highly processed convenience foods. Some specific nutrients for energy include zinc, magnesium and omega 3 fatty acids. So, start small and choose one area to improve at a time.

Andrea Docherty is a Registered Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist with a private practice in Windsor, Ontario where she provides nutrition coaching, meal planning and workplace wellness. For more information visit