By Katie Jeffrey-Lunn

A car requires gasoline to run, and you have a choice of gasoline grades to use depending on the performance you want out of your car. Likewise, your body requires fuel for energy, and just as there are different grades of gasoline, there are different types of foods to fuel your body. The timing, type, combination, and consistency of foods you eat can influence your energy levels.

1. Timing

To maintain your energy level, strive to fuel your body consistently throughout the day. If you currently skip a meal, experiment by eating or drinking a nutritious snack and monitor how you feel. Do you have more energy? Are you able to think more clearly? Are you less irritable or tired?

Eating three meals each day in addition to two or three between-meal snacks provides your body with adequate energy necessary for health. This eating style also reduces your tendency to overeat since you know that you will be fueling your body again in a few hours.

If you tend to skip meals or wait longer than four hours to fuel your body, there is an increased likelihood that you will reach that uncomfortable point when you feel ravenous. If you reach this stage, you are more likely to grab the most convenient food available, which is usually a candy bar, chips or other high calorie, less nutritious food.

You will probably also wolf down the food, not allowing enough time for your stomach to signal your brain that you are pleasantly full or satisfied. It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to let your brain know that you have had enough to eat.

Eating to the point of feeling stuffed is uncomfortable and will make you feel tired and sluggish. To keep your energy levels stable and reduce the likelihood of overeating, take a few extra minutes each night to prepare healthy snacks for yourself to enjoy between meals. Try low-fat yogurt with berries, part-skim mozzarella cheese with whole grain crackers, or cut-up vegetables with hummus or bean dip.

If you are not currently eating a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack, experiment by eating one for a few days and monitor your energy. By fueling your body with a combination of high-quality carbohydrate- and protein-rich foods, you will notice an improvement in how you feel.

If you already enjoy a snack in the afternoon but usually do not combine a high-quality carbohydrate (an apple or whole grain crackers) with a lean protein source (low-fat cheese or peanut butter), try combining these two food groups and see if it leaves you feeling more energized.

2. Type

The type of food you choose is also important for optimizing your energy level. When you eat carbohydrates, make the majority of them high quality: whole grains, fruit, vegetables and beans.

All carbohydrates supply your body with energy in the form of glucose, also referred to as blood sugar. High-quality/low glycemic carbohydrates provide you with sustained energy because they help keep your blood sugar stable.

Low-quality/high glycemic carbohydrates such as white bread, corn flakes or candy, which are more processed, have little or no natural fiber and are usually higher in sugar, cause your blood sugar to spike. This gives you a burst of energy for a short period of time (typically 20 to 30 minutes). Then your blood sugar rapidly drops, leaving you feeling tired and drained.

Use sugary foods as an occasional treat, not a replacement for a mid-day meal or snack. High-quality carbohydrates are also superior because they have abundant and naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber. Fiber is important for digestion and helps to maintain a controlled absorption of glucose, keeping you feeling full.

3. Combination

The best way to keep your energy level stable is to eat a combination of high-quality carbohydrates with a lean protein source or heart healthy fat.

Below is a list of high-quality carbohydrates to help keep you energized:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits (fresh, frozen, unsweetened)
  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Lentils
  • Brown rice
  • Wild rice
  • Barley
  • Oatmeal
  • Quinoa
  • Amaranth
  • Wheat berries
  • Millet
  • Kamut
  • Whole grain cereals, crackers, bread and pasta

Protein is also beneficial for your energy level because it takes longer for your body to digest and use as energy, thus keeping you fuller longer. Try having one serving (see next page for serving information) of lean or heart-healthy protein at each meal.Below is a list of excellent protein sources that are low in saturated fat, which is important for heart health:

  • Turkey
  • Chicken breast (without skin)
  • Seafood and fish
  • Tenderloin
  • Lean ham
  • Lean beef
  • Eggs
  • Low fat dairy (preferably made from goat’s milk or sheep’s milk)
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Split peas
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Soybeans
  • Nuts
  • Nut butters
  • Seeds

To determine one servings of lean protein, use the following guide:

  • For animal protein or tofu – the size and thickness of a deck of playing cards
  • For beans, lentils, or peas – ½ cup
  • For nuts and seeds – ¼ cup or 1 oz.
  • For milk or yogurt – 1 cup
  • For cheese – 1 oz.
  • For nut butters – 2 tablespoons

If you have high cholesterol, your goal is to minimize the amount of saturated fat in your diet as well as limit foods that are high in cholesterol. Strive to consume 3g or less of saturated fat per serving of a food.

4. Consistency

To help optimize your energy, fuel your body consistently each day by enjoying three wholesome nutrient-rich meals, along with two to three healthy and satisfying snacks.Work to combine high-quality carbohydrates with a serving of lean protein to maximize your energy. Build meals that are comprised of at least three of the five foods groups. Choose snacks that contain a minimum of two food groups.

The five food groups are:

  • Grains
  • Protein (fish, poultry, beef, eggs, beans, and nuts)
  • Dairy
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables

Think about quality food choices and work to eat mindfully, paying close attention to the appearance, aroma, flavor and texture of your food as well as how it feels in your stomach. Aim to eat until you are comfortably full.Enjoy the rewards of feeling energized throughout the day by fueling your body consistently and nutritiously.