It’s tempting to sip a sugary latte in the morning or grab a candy bar when you hit a midday slump. While those sweet treats can give you a quick boost, you’ll usually end up crashing—and craving even more sweets. But the right foods can keep you feeling energized all day, without all the ups and downs. These 10 women reveal what foods they reach for when they need to power through a long day. (Repeat after us: No more dieting. Ever. Instead, learn how to eat clean—with zero deprivation!—and watch the pounds drop off, with Your Metabolism Makeover.)
Favorite energy-boosting food: “My no-crash lunch is a turkey burger topped with guacamole, half a sweet potato, and a green salad on the side.”
Favorite energy-boosting food: Salad with chicken, quinoa, olives, avocado, and olive oil vinaigrette.
Favorite energy-boosting food: A smoothie made with frozen or fresh fruit, a banana, Greek yogurt, whey protein powder, spinach, and fiber powder or flax seeds. (We like NorCal Organic whey protein powder.)
“The single thing that’s helped me most with maintaining energy throughout the day is water—lots of water,” says Lyssa Menard, a clinical health psychologist in Chicago. “Proper hydration is so critical to energy maintenance, but I wasn’t taking it as seriously as [my diet].” Once she made a point of frequenting her office water cooler, she says, “My energy shot through the roof.”
Favorite energy-boosting food: A glass of water (duh!).
In her 20s, Kerri Axelrod, a lifestyle coach and yoga instructor in Boston, battled chronic fatigue caused by an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder. “There were days I literally couldn’t get out of bed,” she says. “It wasn’t until I transformed the way I approached food—transitioning away from processed foods and removing gluten and dairy from my diet—that I was able to see a lasting change. When I nourished my body properly, I was able to regain energy.”
Favorite energy-boosting food: Energy bites made with almond butter, dates, chia seeds, gluten-free oats, and dairy-free dark chocolate. (Here’s another tasty way to whip up energy bites.)
After moving out on her own for the first time, Liana Werner Gray, a natural-food chef based in New York City, fell into a junk-food rut. “I was always drained,” she says. “I would be up one minute and down the next because my body was using so much energy to digest all the processed foods and refined sugars.” She started satisfying her sweet tooth with natural sugars— like honey, dates, and fruits—and found it much easier to sustain her energy.
Favorite energy-boosting food: Acai bowls, made by blending acai with a frozen banana. “It’s basically a smoothie poured into a bowl, with fun toppings like fresh berries, gluten-free granola, and chia seeds,” she says. (Here are 9 more breakfast bowls you’ll love.)
Favorite energy-boosting food: Salad with leafy greens, sliced avocado, a can of sardines, lemon juice, and olive oil. “Sardines taste like tuna, but are one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat,” she says.
9/10 Ekaterina Kondratova/Shutterstock.
“After finding out about how beneficial a vegetarian diet was for the planet, I decided to try it and discovered another bonus—I have so much more energy!” says Julie Hancher, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Green Philly Blog. “I don’t need as much coffee as I did before going before vegetarian.”
Favorite energy-boosting food: Energy-boosting bars made with quinoa, dates, almonds, peanut butter, and a pinch of melted cacao chips on top.
Favorite energy-boosting food: “I eat egg whites in some form almost every morning—breakfast sandwich, omelet, scrambled, you name it,” she says.
Favorite energy-boosting food: “Power salads,” which she creates by mixing 2 cups of greens, a cup of raw veggies, a protein (like grilled chicken, tuna, or hard-boiled eggs), and a healthy fat (like shredded cheese, sliced almonds, olives, or sunflower seeds), topped with homemade dressing.
The industry is completely unregulated
Sports and exercise physician, Dr Krishant Naidu has had patients ask him for everything from caffeine to human growth hormone and anabolic steroids as they strive to get bigger.
You may think over-the-counter supplements are far less dangerous than anabolic steroids, but Dr Naidu says the real problem is the total lack of industry regulation. To put it simply, the powder you mix for a pre-workout boost or an after-workout bulk-up isn’t necessarily what it says it is.
“Unlike pharmaceuticals, there’s no requirement for manufacturers to prove the safety of the supplements they sell,” he says. “Or even guarantee what’s in them.”
The great supplement heist
International manufacturers can have components mixed together in some chemical factory offshore and then send this to another factory for branding as an appealing wild-berry-flavoured workout product. And if you order these online they won’t go through any testing in Australia before you consume them.
On the other hand, supplements made in Australia are subject to “batch-testing” which means the risk of contamination is low and they’re likely to contain what they claim – making Australian products much safer to use, says Dr Naidu.
So if you are keen on taking some kind of supplement, either pre- or post-workout, at the very least go Australian made.
Even ones that work may cause health problems
Creatine is marketed to improve performance and there’s some evidence supporting its effectiveness. Although Dr Naidu stresses the research looking at creatine is limited.
And its use can cause serious kidney damage even in people with healthy kidneys – especially if you’re dehydrated.
Supplements containing protein and carbohydrate are commonly marketed to gym-goers to increase their energy and improve recovery.
Dr Naidu says there’s good quality evidence that taking carbohydrates and protein together, in the first 30 minutes after a workout, will provide the best conditions for muscle gain.
But, he says, there isn’t any compelling evidence that carbohydrates and protein from supplements are any more effective than from a good diet.
Still other supplements that claim to help “shredding” often contain stimulants not listed in the ingredients to aid weight loss, says Dr Naidu. And these are usually derivatives of the drug ephedrine that can place the heart under considerable stress – even if they do work to drive weight loss and improve muscle definition.
A dangerous addiction
Former gym devotee, Mina, 35, who doesn’t want his surname published, knows first hand the risks of using supplements.
His fitness motivation morphed from being healthy and fit to being driven by image, one where bigger was better.
Mina was using so many stimulant-based supplements that he needed ever-increasing doses for the same effect. He recalls regularly having to pull over on the way to the gym after taking pre-workout “supps” because he had tremors and heart palpitations.
“The older formulations were incredibly dangerous,” he says.
Focus on the real issues
Mina’s use of supplements and other aids was also a money pit. At his peak, he says he was spending more than $600 a fortnight – not including gym memberships.
He’s now completely off it all and says “not a single minute” was worth it.
Dr Naidu’s message to anyone considering adding in supplements as a boost to reach their end goal is simple: focus on your health, not your looks.
The first time the sugar industry felt compelled to “knock down reports that sugar is fattening,” as this newspaper put it, it was 1956. Papers had run a photograph of President Dwight D. Eisenhower sweetening his coffee with saccharin, with the news that his doctor had advised him to avoid sugar if he wanted to remain thin.
The industry responded with a national advertising campaign based on what it believed to be solid science. The ads explained that there was no such thing as a “fattening food”: “All foods supply calories and there is no difference between the calories that come from sugar or steak or grapefruit or ice cream.”
More than 60 years later, the sugar industry is still making the same argument, or at least paying researchers to do it for them. The stakes have changed, however, with a near tripling of the prevalence of obesity in the intervening decades and what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures reveal to be an almost unimaginable 655 percent increase in the percentage of Americans with diabetes diagnoses. When it comes to weight gain, the sugar industry and purveyors of sugary beverages still insist, a calorie is a calorie, regardless of its source, so guidelines that single out sugar as a dietary evil are not evidence-based.
Surprisingly, the scientific consensus is technically in agreement. It holds that obesity is caused “by a lack of energy balance,” as the National Institutes of Health website explains — in other words, by our taking in more calories than we expend. Hence, the primary, if not the only, way that foods can influence our body weight is through their caloric content
Another way to say this is that what we eat doesn’t matter; it’s only how much — just as the sugar industry would have us believe. A 2014 article in an American Diabetes Association journal phrased the situation this way: “There is no clear or convincing evidence that any dietary or added sugar has a unique or detrimental impact relative to any other source of calories on the development of obesity or diabetes.”
The absence of evidence, though, as the saying goes, is not necessarily evidence of absence. If the research community had been doing its job and not assuming since the 1920s that a calorie is a calorie, perhaps we would have found such evidence long ago.
The assumption ignores decades of medical science, including much of what has become textbook endocrinology (the science of hormones and hormone-related diseases) and biochemistry. By the 1960s, researchers in these fields had clearly demonstrated that different carbohydrates, like glucose and fructose, are metabolized differently, leading to different hormonal and physiological responses, and that fat accumulation and metabolism were influenced profoundly by these hormones. The unique composition of sugar — half glucose, half fructose — made it a suspect of particular interest even then.
The takeaway is that we should expect the consumption of different macronutrients to have differential effects on the hormonal milieu of our cells and so, among myriad other things, on how much fat we accumulate. These effects may be very subtle, but subtle effects can accumulate over a few years or decades into the anything-but-subtle phenomena of obesity and diabetes. In light of this research, arguing today that your body fat responds to everything you eat the exact same way is almost inconceivably naïve.
But don’t blame the sugar industry for perpetuating this view. Blame the researchers and the nutrition authorities.
The industry is in a perverse position: defending the core beliefs of nutrition and obesity research while simultaneously being accused by some of the prominent experts in these disciplines of following the tobacco-industry playbook and so acting as “merchants of doubt.” If this sounds like cognitive dissonance — well, it is.
I am a fierce critic of sugar and believe that it, in fact, may have prematurely killed more people than tobacco. The disorders for which it is the prime suspect — obesity and Type 2 diabetes — in turn elevate our risk of virtually every major chronic disease, from heart disease to cancer and Alzheimer’s. And yet on this issue, I think the sugar industry has a fair point in rejecting the comparison.
Cigarette companies are notorious for having worked to undermine the scientific consensus on tobacco, which was backed by compelling evidence. Tobacco executives knew as well as public health officials that nicotine was addictive and that smoking caused lung cancer. But the evidence implicating sugar as a unique cause of chronic disease has never been nearly so convincing. More to the point, the consensus among nutrition and obesity authorities has been completely aligned with sugar industry interests: Sugar advertisers have had to remind people only that what nutrition authorities believe to be true of all foods is therefore true of sugar as well.
So can we really blame sugar companies for seeking to rebut the contention of some nutrition researchers — that sugar might be a unique cause of diabetes and heart disease — by commissioning other mainstream nutritionists to make the opposite case? In the 1970s, when the industry paid Fred Stare, founder of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, to exonerate sugar in a lengthy journal supplement, “Sugar in the Diet of Man,” all Mr. Stare had to do was enlist as authors some of the very influential researchers who were convinced that dietary fat was the real enemy (the conventional wisdom of the time that has now been largely overturned). No confusion needed to be sown. Their task was simply to reinforce the consensus.
“The method of science,” as the philosopher of science Karl Popper once put it, “is the method of bold conjectures and ingenious and severe attempts to refute them.” In nutrition, the conjectures (their boldness is debatable) are that obesity is caused by lack of energy balance, and so a calorie is a calorie. But they have been accepted with such faith that attempts to refute them have been anything but ingenious and severe. That the attempts have failed may speak more to the quality of the science than the validity of the conjectures. To fully understand the dangers of consuming sugar, we need experiments, in humans, that can unambiguously test these 100-year-old conjectures. No matter how time consuming or expensive these studies are.
To the sugar industry, the nutritionists’ dogmatic belief that obesity is a calorie overconsumption problem and a calorie is a calorie has been the gift that keeps on giving. So long as nutrition and obesity authorities insist that this is true, then the sugar industry can rightfully defend its product on the basis that the calories from sugar are no better nor worse than those from steak or grapefruit or ice cream — perhaps even kale or quinoa. We can’t have it both ways.
Gary Taubes is a co-founder of the Nutrition Science Initiative and the author of “The Case Against Sugar.”