Learn how eating right can boost your energy.

Eating for Energy: 3 Top Strategies

Feeling tired or low energy is a common complaint, and one I hear often from my patients. And when I do, the first thing I ask is, “What are you eating? Tell me everything you ate yesterday.” Most of the time, it turns out they are restricting some major nutrient or food group, i.e. trying to eat low carb, low fat, vegan, etc. Or maybe they’re so busy they’re eating on-the-go foods and don’t realize that most of it isn’t really nutritious.

I personally find that when I follow a single macronutrient diet, it really affects my energy. If I  do strictly low-carb, I feel sluggish. If I do mainly low-fat, I feel less satisfied and end up eating more empty calories to fill me up. For similar reasons, I’ve avoided a vegetarian diet for most of my life, but recently joined our medical center’s 21-day plant based challenge. I didn’t expect this to happen, but going vegetarian has given me more energy than any other way of eating.

The Meat Myth

Interestingly, I’ve been tracking my protein, and even though this diet is lower in protein than any other diet I’ve tried, I actually feel stronger and less tired. Growing up, we always thought protein was the key nutrient necessary for muscle building and strength, but I’m finding that a predominantly vegetarian diet rich in plant protein, antioxidants, and nutrients can make you feel more energetic. And it’s more satisfying too!

When I took the plant-based diet class here at Kaiser Permanente, I learned so much — like vegetables don’t have to be boring! Veggies have crunch, many flavors, and a huge variety of tastes and textures. People think you need meat to make a meal but I don’t miss it at all. I do eat dairy and cheese, though, so I’m not purely plant-based, but I’ve been meat-free for several weeks now and have felt the difference.

I sleep through the night and wake up feeling refreshed and more energetic than ever — even my husband has noticed! And I haven’t gained weight, which surprised me considering how much more I was eating in volume. So now I try to encourage all of my patents to try the vegetarian lifestyle if they complain of fatigue, report difficulties in managing their weight, or just want a healthy change.

The Blood Sugar Factor

Another reason people feel tired and sluggish is that their blood sugar is crashing. This often happens after they eat a high-carb meal or snack–a common mistake. So my other tip is balance: If you want energy to sustain you through your day, you have to combine a protein or a fat with a low GI-index carbohydrate. A few examples include:

  • whole grain crackers and a slice of cheddar cheese
  • dried blueberries or raisins with peanuts
  • apple slices with almond butter
  • plain yogurt with fresh fruit

When I was a resident, my white coat was always stuffed with convenient but healthy and balanced snacks to sustain me. My favorite go-to snack has always been a Kind Bar.  These bars have the perfect combination of protein, fat, and dried fruit and I can keep one in my pocket and whip it out in between patients. But most importantly, don’t skip meals and try to eat as regularly as possible.

Hit the H2O

Lastly, the importance of hydration cannot be underestimated. Many of my patients who complain of fatigue often report less than the recommended 64 ounces of water per day. Fatigue is a sign of dehydration and is easily avoidable if we drink water regularly throughout the day. I love drinking water but admit that sometimes it needs some pizazz. Throwing a few cubes of watermelon or fresh orange slices or Fuji apples in an ice-cold pitcher of water is an easy pick me up. The fruit infusion can energize you, and the water chill provides a good sensory wake-up call. Give it a try and you’ll find yourself drinking more H2O than you expected and feeling more invigorated too!

Of course, sleep is also a factor that must be considered when it comes to fatigue; if sleep issues are a problem for you, try these sleep tips.

Lisa Chui, MD is the program director for Physician Health and Wellness and is an internal medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco.  A native San Franciscan who attended Lowell High School and the University of California at Berkeley, she graduated with honors from medical school and residency and currently resides in San Francisco with her husband. Dr. Chui keeps fit with the Bar Method, relaxes by playing the piano, and encourages her patients to make choices that maximize their health and wellness.