What to Eat 10 Times You Need Energy the Most
Eating the wrong foods at the wrong times can sabotage your memory, creativity, anxiety, energy, and more. Here's how to fuel up right.
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What to eat
Get the most out of your breakfast, lunch, and dinner by eating foods that’ll give you fuel for whatever you have planned. Whether you’re preparing for big presentation, recovering for a late night, or getting ready for a 10K, there are certain foods that will give you the strength, calm, or endurance you need. We asked a team of doctors and dietitians for their suggestions. Here’s what to eat for plenty of energy based on your plans for the day.
During a long day of shopping (for endurance)
What to eat: Steel-cut oatmeal, egg whites, fruit, and nuts
Why: Starting off any long day with a good breakfast is key. “Try steel-cut oatmeal for long-acting, low-glycemic carbs, and some egg whites or a protein shake for protein,” suggests David Greuner, MD, a cardiovascular surgeon and director of NYC Surgical Associates. “Adding a fruit in the morning will also give you sustained energy for the day.” Multiple small meals (versus three large meals) is also key, adds Christopher Hollingsworth, MD, an endovascular surgeon at NYC Surgical Associates. “A large meal can really slow you down and make you feel fatigued during a long day out running errands. Take along a bag of almonds and snack frequently for quick hits of energy.” (Need more ideas? Here are more healthy snacks you don’t have to feel guilty about.)
After staying up late (for alertness and recovery)
What to eat: In the morning, drink 16 ounces of water; eat a hard-boiled or scrambled egg, a piece of fruit, and a half-cup of oatmeal. Continue to eat fiber-rich carbohydrates and protein at each meal. For lunch, try a chicken breast and steamed broccoli with a black bean and quinoa salad. For dinner: salmon, steamed veggies, and brown rice. Coffee or green tea will provide the caffeine the body craves after a sleepless night.
Why: “Dehydration makes fatigue even worse, so starting your day with water will counteract that,” say the Nutrition Twins, registered dietitians Tammy Lakatos Shames, and Lyssie Lakatos, authors of The Nutrition Twins’ Veggie Cure. “You want to fuel with a mix of complex carbs, protein, and fiber for sustained energy—so an egg (one of the most absorbable forms of protein and a good source of energy-boosting B vitamins), fruit (carbohydrates and fiber), and oatmeal (carbs and fiber) for breakfast makes the perfect protein, fiber, carbohydrate combo.” (Here are more reasons to fill up on fiber, a superstar nutrient.)
When doing yard work (for physical strength)
What to eat: Ezekiel toast, coconut oil, avocado
Why: According to New York-based registered dietitian Keri Glassman, founder of NutritiousLife.com and The Nutrition School, you want to incorporate carbs into your meal for energy and protein so you stay fuller longer. “I would suggest a slice Ezekiel toast with one tablespoon coconut oil and half a small avocado.” If you’re up for baking, Glassman suggests trying Energy-Boosting Peanut Butter Bites.
Before a big meeting (for calmness)
What to eat: Tea with a little bit of milk
Why: “Green, black, and oolong tea contain the amino acid theanine, which passes the blood-brain barrier to bring on a mental calmness and ease anxiety while creating alertness, making it the perfect tonic before an important meeting,” according to the Nutrition Twins. “Additionally, the little boost of caffeine in the tea will give a mental edge without being too much to cause anxiety. Add a splash of milk to the tea and the calcium in the milk will help to relax the muscles as well.” (Check out all the other amazing health benefits of tea.)
During a day of travel (to re-set your body clock for a different time zone)
What to eat: Small protein-rich snacks
Why: You may not be traveling as much as you used to, but eventually the highways and skies will be filled again. And when traveling across different time zones, it’s best to pass on the heavy, high-sodium foods and opt for lighter, protein-rich meals to keep your energy up. “Foods like nuts, almond butter with crackers, cheese, yogurt, and so forth will keep you nourished until you are back on a normal meal schedule,” says Dr. Greuner. “Don’t fall prey to processed airport food that will leave you feeling run-down and sluggish. Make sure the food and drinks that you are eating before a long flight are low sugar, slow-burn carbs, and moderate protein. I’ll typically bring hummus packs and grain crackers, vegetables that won’t perish easily, homemade trail mix, and a protein bar to hold me over until my next meal.” Dr. Greuner also underscores the need to drink enough water to stay hydrated. “Make sure to drink enough to help combat harsh cabin air, which is notorious for drying up the mucus membranes in the ears, nose, and mouth, leaving you vulnerable to infection.”
Before a big family dinner (to avoid overeating)
What to eat: Pistachios
Why: Before a big family meal, pistachios are an ideal fuel due to their combination of fiber, protein, and healthy fats to keep you feeling satisfied longer. “When you get to the meal, the edge is taken off so you won’t feel the need to dive into every food that comes your way,” explain the Nutrition Twins. “Also, often the stress before a family gathering causes people to want to snack and crunch on something, and in-shell pistachios are the perfect snack.” Pistachios can help you fool yourself into thinking you are full because, according to research in Appetite, the leftover shells may provide a visual cue of how much you’ve eaten, helping you to curb your intake. This is an idea known in nutrition circles as the pistachio principle.
Dr. Greuner adds that you should offer to bring some dishes if you’re not the one hosting. “You can swap pasta for zucchini noodles and include fresh ingredients such as tomatoes and cucumbers,” he says. “Drizzle a bit of balsamic vinegar over vegetables to enhance their natural flavor without using heavy sauces. For BBQ season, use simple herb rubs for spice, or even a bit of salt, pepper, and garlic powder to add a ton of flavor before your meat hits the grill.”
Before a test or presentation (for focus and memory)
What to eat: Flaxseeds
Why: Flaxseeds are great for increasing focus and memory. Dr. Greuner suggests adding them to breakfast foods such as oatmeal, smoothies, or protein shakes. “Flaxseeds are high in fiber and omega-3s, which help improve concentration by keeping your blood sugar levels stable. Be sure to grind your flaxseeds—in a blender, coffee grinder, or Cuisinart—to make the fiber easier to digest, and to make it more effective at reducing blood sugar levels.”
Before running a 10K (for physical speed)
What to eat: Oatmeal with a multivitamin, plus a shot of beet juice
Why: Dr. Hollingsworth suggests a light meal with a small portion of complex carbohydrates, such as oatmeal—plus a multivitamin or supplement with branched-chain amino acids. “Branched-chain amino acid supplements have good research showing improved endurance and improved recovery,” he says. He adds that beets have been shown to improve blood flow, with their promotion of nitric oxide release. To reduce inflammation following the race, research points to the benefits of turmeric and curcumin. The amino acid taurine, found in energy drinks beef, lamb, dark chicken meat, eggs, most dairy products, seaweed, krill, and brewer’s yeast, can help reduce muscle cramping.
For a brainstorming session (for creativity)
What to eat: Wild blueberries
Why: “Wild blueberries are perfect to have before a brainstorming session as they have been shown to boost memory, concentration, and performance, all of which are major factors when it comes to having a sharp mind and allowing the creative juices to flow,” say the Nutrition Twins. “The healthy brain function comes from anthocyanins, a potent flavonoid antioxidant that’s highly concentrated in the deep blue pigments of wild blueberries.” Research presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society also suggests that wild blueberries help slow Alzheimer’s disease. “Wild blueberries have two times the powerful antioxidants of regular blueberries, 72 percent more fiber and 32 percent less sugar,” according to the Twins. They’re also very versatile. Eat them on their own, in yogurt, in a smoothie, with your cereal, or on a high fiber cracker.
Before a corporate function (for mood and sociability)
What to eat: Veggies in hummus or bean dip, or black bean and corn salsa
Why: “The carbohydrates in pulses—chickpeas, dried peas, beans, and lentils—quickly ramp up your body’s feel-good chemical, serotonin, a neurotransmitter that combats pain, decreases appetite, and produces calmness—perfect before mingling with co-workers,” say the Nutrition Twins. “The fiber and protein in the pulses promote gradual digestion, leading to both long-lasting energy and an ongoing mood boost. Pulses contain folic acid, vitamin B6, and zinc, all of which help in the manufacture of serotonin from the tryptophan found in the food you eat.” The Twins suggest dipping veggies in hummus, bean dip, or black bean and corn salsa, snacking on honey-roasted chickpeas, or enjoying a bowl of lentil soup before the event—whether it’s in-person or a virtual get-together.
Next, check out the best diet for every decade.
- David Greuner, MD, a cardiovascular surgeon and director of NYC Surgical Associates
- Christopher Hollingsworth, MD, endovascular surgeon at NYC Surgical Associates
- Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CDN, CFT and Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT, authors of The Nutrition Twins' Veggie Cure
- Keri Glassman, RDN, founder of NutritiousLife.com
- Appetite: "In-shell Pistachio Nuts Reduce Caloric Intake Compared to Shelled Nuts"
- Journal of Exercise Nutrition & Biochemistry: "Effect of BCAA intake during endurance exercises on fatigue substances, muscle damage substances, and energy metabolism substances"
- European Journal of Nutrition: "Cognitive effects following acute wild blueberry supplementation in 7- to 10-year-old children"
- American Chemical Society: "Blueberries, the well-known ‘super fruit,’ could help fight Alzheimer’s"