Eating for Energy and Focus Deborah Blake, NC
Updated: Nov 14, 2019
It’s late afternoon, your eyes start to glaze over and the yawning begins. Maybe you think a caffeine boost will help, or you unconsciously reach for some convenient carb-laden snack. This all-too-common routine could be avoided with the right fuel for your body, along with some beneficial lifestyle habits to support digestion and energy levels.
What should I eat for energy and focus? Here are some general guidelines that will work for most people:
Think SOUL food. As SOULFUL Insights reminds us, start with eating food that is Seasonal, Organic, Unprocessed and Local, if you can. Eating this way will ensure you are maximizing the nutrient density in your foods while avoiding harmful toxins, GMOs and pesticides that are found in processed and many conventionally raised foods.
Eat three meals a day. One of the critical factors you can control to maintain a consistent energy level is your blood sugar: keep it steady. By eating three meals a day until you are 80% full, you help to ensure your blood sugar doesn’t drop too low as a result of not eating. It also helps prevent a sharp rise and abrupt drop in your blood sugar due to overeating.
Build a balanced plate. Eating regularly throughout the day without attention to what you are eating is not enough to ensure optimal energy and focus. You need all three macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) in your diet. I recommended consuming each macronutrient at each meal to benefit from the full spectrum of nutrients while also allowing for a slow and steady release of energy that will tide you over until your next meal.
Start by featuring vegetables and maybe a little fruit occasionally as the “main dish,” making up 50% of your plate.
One-fourth of your plate can include whole grains and/or legumes. You don’t need to include grains and legumes at every meal or every day for that matter. Carbohydrates from vegetables alone may meet your needs for this macronutrient.
One-fourth of your plate should include some protein (animal or plant-based).
Last, but certainly not least, are healthy fats to round out the meal. Not only do fats add flavor and lead to satiety, but fat is needed to absorb and metabolize fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K), help to build hormones and for many other important body functions. Perhaps the most essential nutrient for the brain are Omega-3 fats (think, oily fish like Sardines and salmon or plant-based walnuts, flax seeds and pumpkin seeds). They help build your myelin sheath, which insulates your nerves. This, in turn, keeps nerve signals flowing so you stay alert and focused. Omega-3 fats are also anti-inflammatory and protect the brain from oxidative stress. Your body cannot make Omega-3 fats so you must consume them from food.
Eating a combination of carbohydrates, fats and protein at each meal (or snack if you really need one) is essential to maintaining long, steady energy. Macronutrients work together to convert energy continuously throughout the day, and their nutrients keep the body functioning at its optimal level. Remember to build your plate like the photo above. If you feel you need a second helping, help yourself to a little more of everything in similar proportions to keep your macronutrient ratios on target.
Foods to avoid for enhanced energy and focus There is much debate about consuming caffeine for alertness and focus. While a cup of coffee can definitely provide you with a quick dose of sharpness, you can also overdo it and feel jittery and anxious, which then detracts from being focused. Additionally, the “boost” is short-lived. Ideally, it’s better to focus on sustained energy sources as discussed earlier in this post over a quick boost. If you must consume coffee, do so before 12 pm; the half-life of caffeine is six hours and could affect sleep if ingested after noon.
Sugar and alcohol also have adverse effects on energy and focus. They both cause blood sugar to spike and drop in unhealthy ways and require precious nutrients to process while adding no nutritional value. Aim to keep your daily sugar intake to less than eight teaspoons, or 30 grams.
Boosting energy and focus through lifestyle choices Now that you know what to eat at each meal, let’s focus on some healthy lifestyle choices that can boost your absorption and utilization of the nutrients you take in and thus positively affect your energy level and ability to focus. There are three primary lifestyle behaviors that directly influence your digestion:
Sleep. On average, most adults need eight hours of sleep to fully repair and rejuvenate their muscles and brain. Sleep deprivation of even one hour a night can impair your ability to make healthy choices, stay focused and think quickly. Additionally, trying to sleep on a full stomach can interfere with sleep quality and repair time for your organs. Aim to finish eating at least two to three hours before sleeping.
Stress management. Never eat when you are feeling stressed because your digestive system shuts down under duress. Taking a few deep breaths before you start a meal can be enough to shift the body into its parasympathetic mode and allow it to ready itself to receive food. Strategies to relieve stress throughout the day include regular deep cleansing breaths (especially when you notice stress coming on), exercise, laughing and meditation.
Eat mindfully. Before taking any bite, ask yourself if you are, in fact, hungry. If you aren’t, think about why you are tempted to eat at that moment and address the emotion as appropriate. For example, try taking a quick walk to redirect and make a new choice. To improve digestion and avoid overeating, eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly. Aim for at least 20 chews/bite and try to lower your fork back to your plate between each bite. An average meal should take you at least 20 minutes to eat. Try to stop when you feel 80% full. Furthermore, don’t eat with distractions like watching TV or working on your computer, as this combination can lead to overeating and leave you feeling less satisfied than when you consciously enjoy each bite and take in all the flavors.
Other factors that can influence your energy and focus are undiagnosed, nutrition-related health issues such as food sensitivities, gut dysbiosis (an imbalance of your good and bad bacteria), metabolic syndrome or yeast overgrowth. Additionally, functional-related concerns such as hormone imbalances, autoimmune disorders or adrenal fatigue may be other avenues to explore. If you suspect one of these issues, seek the advice of a nutrition consultant or functional medicine practitioner for further evaluation and treatment of the cause.
Five things you can do today to improve energy and focus.
Eat whole foods
Get adequate sleep
Eat three macronutrient balanced meals a day, mostly plants
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Drake, Christopher, et al. “Effects of rapid versus slow accumulation of eight hours of sleep loss.” Psychophysiology, 38(6), Nov. 2001, 979-987. Web. Oct 24, 2017. www.cambridge.org/core/journals/psychophysiology/article/div-classtitleeffects-of-rapid-versus-slow-accumulation-of-eight-hours-of-sleep-lossdiv/AEB7654ADE0733D836C6858A4D9410A7
Goldstein, Andrea, et al. “Tired and Apprehensive: Anxiety Amplifies the Impact of Sleep Loss on Aversive Brain Anticipation.” Journal of Neuroscience. 26 June 2013, 33 (26) 10607-10615. Web. Oct 17, 2017. www.jneurosci.org/content/33/26/10607
“Healthy Eating Plate vs. USDA’s MyPlate.” The Nutrition Source, Harvard TH Chan, April 8, 2015. Web. Oct. 24, 2017. www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate-vs-usda-myplate/
Deborah Blake, NC
Deborah is a Nutrition Consultant in Menlo Park, California. She graduated in 2007 from Antioch University in Seattle with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Justice. Ever committed to working to improve the lives of others, she continued her education and recently graduated from the Nutrition Consulting program at Bauman College in Berkeley. Bauman is recognized for being at the forefront of the holistic approach to nutrition as it contributes to the prevention of illness and the promotion of optimal health. Deborah is passionate about empowering clients with nutritional education and support so that they can create new habits to reach desired health goals. She offers one on one nutrition and wellness coaching, cooking demonstrations, as well as individualized meal planning.
In addition, Deborah is the co-author of Bites Beyond Limits, a food blog dedicated to allergy-free eating.
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