All food can actually become energy. But certain foods or ways of eating are better at promoting energy than others, which we’ll discuss more in this article.
The process of getting energy from food is called cellular respiration. It’s called this since our cells actually use oxygen, which comes from respiration (breathing), to convert the particles in food into the energy molecule ATP, or adenosine triphosphate. ATP is the form of energy that cells can use to perform their many duties.
Before cellular energy is made, foods must first go through the process of digestion, which involves breakdown of large food components into their most basic units-- amino acids, fatty acids, and sugar molecules like glucose.
All of the energy in your body that enables it to function comes from food you eat. That’s a pretty hefty role that food plays in your life! The macronutrients which include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats provide calories to fuel your body’s internal processes, your daily activities, and exercise.
Vitamins and minerals, on the other hand, don’t provide calories but are needed in the processes that break down foods for energy. That’s why eating nutrient-dense foods is so important for thriving health.
While popular discussion around calories often mistakenly bears language of “good” and “bad”, a truer understanding of calories is that they are simply a unit of measurement of the amount of total energy potential from foods.
Of course, how much calories (energy) is available to cells at a given time is an important factor to keep in mind for optimal health.
Sustained energy levels throughout the day depend largely on blood sugar balance. If you eat balanced meals with the right combination of foods that provide sustained release energy and enough energy overall, you can stay energized for several hours at a time, without having to reach for another coffee or snack. We’ll discuss the importance of maintaining blood sugar balance further in this article.
Carbohydrates generally provide a quick source of energy in the body. The carb component of foods includes sugars and starches as well as non-digestible fibers.
During digestion, the body uses enzymes such as amylase to break down starches and sugars into simple sugars, mainly glucose. Glucose then enters the bloodstream at which point it is called “blood sugar.”
In response to increased blood sugar, the body produces insulin to help move that sugar into the cells of the body to either be converted into quick energy or stored for later use. When the body receives more blood sugar than it needs in the moment, it can store that sugar either as glycogen or as body fat. Glycogen can then be used during times of activity to supply a steady amount of glucose for energy. When glycogen stores are filled up, excess blood sugar can be converted into body fat.
The glycemic index (GI) is a rating system for foods containing carbohydrates. It shows how quickly each food affects your blood sugar level when that food is eaten on its own. For example, sugar is ranked around 100, while an apple is ranked around 36.
While carbohydrate containing foods can be part of a healthy diet, it’s the refined carbohydrate foods that can create a problem. Examples of refined carb foods are those made from refined flours like white bread and pretzels as well as sugary foods and drinks like cookies and soda. With the natural fibers removed during the refining process, these foods can spike blood sugar. High blood sugar can lead to energy crashes and even weight gain.
Carbohydrate-rich foods with lower glycemic indexes generally contain more complex carbs and fiber, which slow down the rise in blood sugar when digesting the food. Protein and healthy fat in food can also help keep blood sugar levels in check that are already in a normal range.
A helpful tip is to choose whole or minimally processed carb foods that naturally contain fiber and to pair these foods with a source of protein and fat. For example, instead of having your morning oatmeal alone, pair it with Greek yogurt and peanut butter for a protein, fat and fiber-fueled breakfast that can support more steady blood sugar levels until the next meal or snack.
Examples of minimally processed carbohydrate-rich foods include:
All plant-based foods contain some amount of carbohydrates, but the ones listed above contain a comparatively larger amount of carbohydrates than other plant-based foods, including non-starchy vegetables like broccoli and spinach, avocadoes, and nuts and seeds. Milk and milk-based products are one animal-based product that also contains carbs as the sugar lactose.
Protein is made up of amino acids and functions in the body in a number of roles, including structural support, enzymes that catalyze biochemical reactions, hormones, and hemoglobin for carrying oxygen in the blood. Amino acids even provide the building blocks for producing neurotransmitters, and inadequate protein intake can lead to decreased levels of neurotransmitters.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of protein is at least 0.8-1g/kilogram of body weight per day. However, an RDA is defined as the amount of a nutrient you need to meet your most basic nutritional requirements. Many experts argue that a more optimal intake may be up to 1.2-1.5 g/kg of body weight in order to maintain lean body mass and other functions of a thriving metabolism, especially for those who are more active as well as in older adults.
Protein is not the preferred major fuel source for two major reasons:
As stated before, protein can also support balanced blood sugar levels when eating carbohydrates.
Animal sources of protein contain all essential amino acids in the amounts the human body needs, while plant sources of protein are usually lacking in a few amino acids (with the exception of soy, quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth) and should be combined with other plant proteins or animal proteins in order to get the right amino acids.
Animal-based protein foods with additional nutrients for healthy energy levels include:
Plant-based protein foods that are rich in nutrients include:
Fats play a critical role in the body as a component of cell membranes, transport molecules, hormone production, and insulation and protection for body organs. Fats, also called lipids, are found in oils, meats, dairy, and plants and consumed mostly in the form of triglycerides.
Fats are the slowest of the macronutrients to digest but provide the most efficient form of energy. Fats provide 9 calories per gram, which is over two times more than the 4 calories per gram of carbs and proteins. While some excess energy can be stored as glycogen, most of it is stored as body fat due to the caloric density of fats.
Fats also help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, which are necessary for a healthy metabolism.
Some fats are made in the body while others are required from food and are called essential fatty acids. The two types of essential fatty acids are omega-3 (such as EPA and DHA) and omega-6 fats. These essential fatty acids are types of PUFAs, or polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Other types of fats include MUFAs (monounsaturated fats), saturated fats, and trans fats. While industrially produced trans fats have negative effects on health, others are naturally occuring, such as CLA (conjugated linoleic acid)%20and%20positional%20locations. "CLA (conjugated linoleic acid)") found in small amounts in dairy and meats and has been shown to have health benefits.
Foods high in fat that contain additional supportive nutrients include:
Vitamins and minerals themselves do not provide any energy but rather are essential in the process of converting macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins) into fuel for energy. You can think of carbs, proteins, and fats as logs that burn for a fire, whereas vitamins and minerals are like the firestarter to get the flames going.
Multivitamin supplements that contain vitamins and minerals can help bridge the gaps of a diet that does not get enough nutrients overall.
A good multivitamin like Care/of’s Multivitamin can help you get the nutrients you might be lacking without adding too much of what you likely do get from what you eat.
Overall, eating a balance of protein, fats, and carbs from minimally processed foods can give you the best chance of supporting healthy metabolism and energy levels.
You can follow this simple strategy of nutrition for great energy:
Some of the most nutrient-dense foods that you can incorporate into your diet include:
While good nutrition plays a huge role in sustaining energy levels, we can’t forget about lifestyle behaviors that impact energy.
Aim for adequate sleep, which includes:
Eating nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods and making sure you eat a balance of protein, carbs, and fats throughout the day can support steady energy levels.