Put the energy drink down and keep your engine revved throughout the day by filling up on our picks for the best energy-packed whole foods. By: Karen Ansel, RD
May 14, 2012
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Foods for Energy
If you have to drag yourself through the day, it’s easy to think popping a supplement or chugging an energy drink can help recharge your battery. Not so fast. All-day energy doesn’t come from a pill or a concoction in a can. It comes from real food, which is packed with nature’s secret stash of natural revitalizers such as complex carbs, protein, and fiber. Stock up on these 12 superfoods and watch your energy rebound.
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Melons such as cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon aren’t just bursting with energizing vitamins and minerals. With 90 percent of their weight coming from water, they fight fatigue by keeping you hydrated. That’s good news according to a 2012 Journal of Nutrition study, which found that even mild dehydration can sap your energy and mood. Pick up a cup of diced cantaloupe or watermelon on your way to work for a hydrating midmorning snack or prepare a melon-packed salad to pack for lunches.
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This thick, creamy concoction, also known as skyr, is giving Greek yogurt some stiff competition. Like Greek yogurt, skyr is made with three times the milk of most traditional yogurts and then carefully strained to remove excess liquid. The result: a rich, velvety creation that boasts 14 grams of slowly-digested protein per 5.3 ounce container. The main difference between Icelandic and Greek yogurts is their fat content. While Greek may or may not contain fat, Icelandic yogurt is only made with non-fat milk, so it’s guaranteed to be fat free. If you can’t find Icelandic yogurt to use in this recipe, opt for fat-free Greek yogurt.
4 of 13Photo: Randy Mayor
Made from cornmeal, this Northern Italian staple is loaded with complex carbs. Unlike simple carbohydrates from highly-processed grains, complex carbs are broken down slowly so they keep your blood sugar on an even keel, providing a sustained energy release that lasts for hours. Plus, polenta couldn’t be easier to make with quick-cooking varieties ready in as little as 10 minutes. Simply stir it into boiling water, broth, or milk and serve. For a comforting whole grain start to your day, fold in dried tart cherries or chopped dried apricots. Or, prepare as a quick-fix dinner topped with marinara sauce instead of your usual pasta.
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A 2011 Cambridge University study finds that protein-rich foods can help you stay awake and alert, making them the perfect way to start your day. But aside from eggs, milk, or yogurt, protein at breakfast can be hard to come by. Ditch the fat-filled cream cheese, butter, or margarine and pump up the protein in your morning meal with farmer’s cheese. Farmer’s cheese presses cheese curds that have been separated from the liquid, whey, until it is almost dry giving it a texture similar to but slightly drier than ricotta. It can be made from the milk of goats, sheep, or cows. Two tablespoons deliver 4 grams of high-quality protein for only 40 calories and 2 1/2 grams of fat. Chevre, made from goat’s milk, and Mexican queso blanco are two examples of farmer's cheese.
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Walnuts are one of nature’s few sources of melatonin, a hormone that our bodies naturally produce in the evening after the sun goes down. Melatonin helps regulate your body clock and makes you sleepy. And when you sleep more soundly you have more get-up-and-go during the day. But as we age, our bodies produce less and less of it. If you’re not ready to go the supplement route, walnuts are a smart nighttime snack. For a double dose, mix a small handful with some tart dried cherries, another melatonin-rich food. Walnuts also make a great topping to a fresh salad or sprinkled over a fruit smoothie.
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If you can’t make it through the day without an extra cup of Joe, don’t sweat it. Studies show that coffee can help reduce your risk of depression, a huge energy buster. When researchers at Harvard School of Public Health and Columbia University tracked the coffee consumption of over 50,000 women, they found that those who sipped two to three cups of caffeinated coffee a day were 15 percent less likely to suffer from depression than those who downed less than one cup per week. Women who drank four cups a day fared even better, slashing their risk of the blues by 20 percent. If a fancy coffee drink topped with whipped cream is tempting, make your own and save a few calories and pennies along the way.
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Not a coffee drinker? Try green tea. It’s rich in L-theanine, an amino acid that makes you feel alert and invigorated without the jitters that some people get from coffee. L-theanine may also protect against energy-robbing illnesses like the common cold or the flu according to a 2007 Journal of the American College of Nutrition study. When volunteers took a green tea supplement twice daily for three months they were 23 percent less likely to be sidelined by either of these illnesses for more than two days.
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This crustacean isn’t just a tasty source of superlean protein, it’s also packed with vitamin B12, which balances mood and fights fatigue. B12 also keeps red blood cells healthy so they can ferry oxygen to our brains, helping us think clearly and stay energized. B12 is only found naturally in animal foods like meat, chicken, and fish, so it might be easy to fall behind on daily needs. Consider crab as an efficient (and delicious) source: One tiny 3-ounce serving dishes up nearly a third of the B12 you need each day for only 71 calories and less than a gram of fat. Buy it canned for a speedy addition to salads, risotto, and pasta or splurge on fresh lump crabmeat for company-worthy crab cakes.
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Brown rice isn’t just packed with complex carbs. It’s a top source of magnesium, too. That’s good news since research from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service finds that low magnesium levels can hinder your body’s energy metabolism. If you work out, it’s even more important as a diet low in magnesium can zap the quality of your workout, causing you to tire more easily. Just 1 cup of cooked brown rice delivers more than a quarter of the magnesium women require in a day and a fifth the amount that men need.
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Eating a balanced snack every 3 to 4 hours prevents dips in blood sugar that leave you lethargic and listless. Edamame could be one of the smartest picks of all. Not only is it perfectly balanced with slowly digested fiber, complex carbs, and healthy fat, it packs a whopping 16 grams of protein per cup for less than 200 calories. Plus, it’s rich in magnesium and B vitamins that our bodies need to convert carbohydrates into energy. Make your own snack packs by parceling cup-sized portions of frozen edamame into baggies. They’ll defrost just in time for a late morning nosh. In this recipe, we’re upped the energy-factor in traditional succotash with the addition of vibrant green edamame.
12 of 13Photo: Randy Mayor
Whole-Grain Cereal and Low-Fat Milk
Whole-grain cereal and low-fat milk is the ideal way to start your day on all cylinders or to refuel after a workout. Not only does it serve up an energizing mix of protein, fiber, and slowly-digested complex carbs, it’s ready in less than a minute. For even more muscle, choose a cereal that’s been fortified with iron, a mineral we need to form hemoglobin, which delivers oxygen throughout our bodies. And don’t forget to add in some sliced strawberries. Their vitamin C will help you absorb even more of your cereal’s iron.
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With the perfect combo of slowly digested protein, complex carbohydrates, and fiber, these little legumes could be the ideal energy food. Just one half cup of cooked lentils provides more protein than an egg and more than a quarter of your daily dose of fiber for only 115 calories and practically zero fat. Because they don’t require soaking, you can cook them in a fraction of the time it takes to make beans. Use them to beef up protein in salads, soups, and veggie burgers.