To power through your '90s hip-hop ride and everything else your day throws at you (errands, marathon work meetings, that bedtime routine with the kids), energy is essential—and energy comes from properly fueling your body. But what does that mean, exactly? Turns out, there are two sides to the “energizing foods” coin, and understanding this gives you the tools you need to optimize your energy levels, without drastic highs and lows.
Eating for Energy
Essentially, eating for energy means two things:
Consuming sufficient calories (calories = stored energy) via the right balance of macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fats)
Getting enough of the vitamins and minerals required to efficiently “unlock” and utilize the energy from these macros.
Let’s unpack this a bit: Even if you’re eating enough calories for your current activity, you may not be getting the right balance of carbs, proteins, and fats to feel optimally energized. For instance, you definitely want carbs (which are broken down into cellular energy, or ATP, more efficiently than protein and fat)—but it’s all about the right carbs and not eating them by themselves.
“Carbs are the body’s primary source of energy and the brain’s preferred source for energy as well,” says registered dietitian Carrie Gabriel, MS, RDN. “They are broken down into glucose and used as fuel for our cells, tissues, and organs.” But ideally, she adds, you should be choosing whole-food sources of carbs such as fruits, starchy vegetables, legumes, and whole grains that are higher in nutrients and fiber—these will be digested more slowly and keep blood sugar more stable compared to refined carbohydrates like white bread, crackers, and juice.
What you pair them with matters, too. “Carbohydrates are the energy currency of the body and you want them to have staying power,” says Desiree Nielsen, RD, registered dietitian and author of Eat More Plants and Good for Your Gut. “When you balance meals with a bit of fiber, protein, and healthy fats, you get a low and slow bump in blood sugars as opposed to a blood sugar spike and crash.” (While a spike may initially feel energizing, the crash that follows shortly after can leave you lethargic and cranky. So balanced blood sugar is key to balanced energy.)
An exception to this “pairing” rule? If you need a quick source of energy shortly before a workout, you may want to go with a carb-rich snack that’s light on protein and fat, like a banana, says Jennifer McDaniel, MS, RDN, CSSD, a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics.
Additionally, the micronutrient density of your food matters a whole lot for energy levels. “Micronutrients can influence how energy is metabolized by the body as well as how energized you feel,” says Nielsen. For instance, many of these micros play important roles in biological reactions that turn the macronutrients you consume into energy as ATP—but that’s not all. Here are a few key “energizing” vitamins and minerals:
Iron: “You need adequate iron to build red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout your body [via hemoglobin] as well as for energy production in the mitochondria,” says Nielsen. “If you skimp on iron, fatigue is a common side effect, particularly for active folks as muscles have increased oxygen needs during exercise.”
Vitamin C: “Vitamin C plays an important role in energy production through beta- oxidation, the process by which fatty acids are broken down to produce energy,” says McDaniel. “If you don’t get enough, you may notice weakness or muscle aching.”
B vitamins: Thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and other B vitamins are critical for energy metabolism (that is, unlocking the energy potential of the foods you eat) and play a role in ATP production; and B12 and folate are important for oxygen transport, says Nielsen.
Magnesium: Magnesium aids in the production and utilization of ATP; and it activates enzymes that control digestion, absorption, and the use of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, thereby helping you obtain energy from food, says McDaniel.
Energizing Foods to Fuel Your Every Day (and Your Workouts)
Below, our experts share their favorite energizing foods and the ways they like to eat them.
1. Green Veggies (Kale, Broccoli, Arugula)
Daily green veggies—anything from kale to broccoli to arugula—are a must for Nielsen. “They really make a difference in how people feel, energy-wise, which makes sense since greens are packed with fiber, antioxidant phytochemicals, and small amounts of minerals like iron, magnesium, and zinc,” she says. Arugula is also rich in nitrate, notes McDaniel, which can help improve oxygen delivery and utilization and provide a boost in endurance energy.
Try this: Throw greens into a smoothie, make a massaged kale salad, saute your favorite greens in olive oil with plenty of garlic, or toss some arugula with olive oil, lemon juice, a touch of honey, and salt and pepper.
2. Beans and Lentils
Legumes are the ultimate slow-digesting, complex carbohydrate—their combination of plant protein and fiber helps maintain blood sugar control and therefore stabilize energy levels, according to McDaniel. Lentils, for example, are a particularly great pick, containing nearly 9 g protein and 8 g fiber per ½-cup serving, cooked. They also pack a range of minerals, including iron, magnesium, copper, and manganese.
Try this: “Crispy roasted lentils make a great snack or salad topper, and lentil soups or curries are a filling one-pot meal,” says Nielsen. Or saute up canned black beans and salsa, load it into corn tortillas, and top with cheese for quick plant-based tacos, suggests McDaniel.
Swapping your breakfast cereal for a bowl of oatmeal is a no-brainer for energy—Gabriel and McDaniel are both big fans. Minimally processed steel-cut oats provide around 27 g of slow-digesting carbohydrates, 4 g of fiber, and 5 g of protein. Steel-cut oats also elicit a milder rise in blood sugar than rolled oats or refined grains, providing the body with longer-lasting energy. Oats also contain energy-supporting micronutrients, including iron, B vitamins, and magnesium.
Try this: Make overnight oats: Soak oats in water, milk, or plant-based milk along with your choice of nuts, seeds, fruit, and flavor-boosters like cinnamon or even some protein powder, then place in the fridge overnight. (If you’re using steel-cut oats, soak them in a hot liquid first, allow to cool, then refrigerate, advises McDaniel.)
Bananas are a good source of carbohydrates (27 g per medium banana, including 3 g fiber). Because they have minimal fat and protein, they’re easy to digest and provide quick-acting energy—making them a great snack before running or cycling. They’re also a great source of vitamin B6, which aids in the release of energy from foods, says Gabriel. To give them more staying power, as Nielsen puts it, you can pair them with some nut butter, too.
Try this: Peanut butter and banana never gets old; or try a smoothie with frozen banana, milk or non-dairy milk, protein powder, peanut butter, and spinach (nope, you can’t taste the spinach!).
5. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are another easy-to-digest source of complex carbohydrates, similar to bananas—a medium sweet potato has around 26 g of carbs along with 4 g of fiber to help buffer a rise in blood sugar, but they can easily be paired with toppings (avocado, a fried egg, ground turkey, etc) to elongate their energizing properties. They’re also a good source of vitamin B6, beta-carotene (which has anti-inflammatory properties), and potassium, which is an electrolyte mineral that helps your nerves function and muscles contract.
Try this: Top a baked sweet potato with herbs, spices, and protein- and fat-containing add-ons as mentioned above. Or make some baked sweet potato fries by slicing thinly, tossing in olive oil and seasonings of your choice, and baking til crispy.
6. Red Bell Pepper
“Just 1/2 cup of red bell pepper contains more than 100 percent of your daily vitamin C requirement,” says Nielsen. Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant to help curb inflammation and plays a key role in the production of energy via fatty acid beta-oxidation. Pro tip: Stick to raw bell peppers most often to preserve their vitamin C content.
Try this: Snack on sliced red bell peppers with hummus or guacamole, add to salads, or dice up and add to chicken or tuna salad.
Make frozen blueberries a freezer staple. “Blueberries have both soluble and insoluble fiber that slows the rate of digestion causing a steady release of sugar into your bloodstream for longer-lasting energy,” says McDaniel. “Blueberries also contain antioxidants that have been shown to support brain function—and if you want good energy, you’ll want your brain on board!” Plus, they’re a good source of vitamin C, which acts as an antioxidant and supports fat metabolism.
Try this: Add frozen blueberries to smoothies or oats for a hit of sweetness without the blood sugar spike. Or punch up a salad with fresh blueberries and toss them in yogurt for a perfect post-workout snack, suggests McDaniel.
8. Hemp Hearts
Hemp hearts are packed with energy-supporting micronutrients, and their fat and protein content helps make carb-containing meals more blood sugar friendly. “I think of them almost as an edible omega-3 and mineral supplement,” says Nielsen. “Three tablespoons of hemp hearts contains 10 grams of protein, 100% of your daily omega-3 requirement, a quarter of your daily zinc and iron needs, and almost 50% of your daily magnesium requirement.”
Try this: Make your own plant-based hemp milk with just hemp hearts and water; sprinkle hemp hearts into smoothies, oatmeal, salads, and soups; or substitute a ½ cup of flour with hemp hearts in most muffin or cookie recipes for extra flavor and texture, suggests Nielsen.
Nuts contain a great balance of all macros: carbohydrates (including fiber), protein, and fat. So they help buffer blood sugar spikes and keep energy stable. Depending on the specific nut, they may contain a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants as well. A 1-ounce serving of almonds packs about 24 percent of your daily requirement for magnesium, which aids in the production and utilization of ATP; while a single Brazil nut contains 100 percent of your requirement for selenium, which is a key component of antioxidant enzymes and supports the synthesis of thyroid hormones, which, in turn, impacts metabolism and energy.
Try this: Add a variety of nuts to your oatmeal or yogurt, toss them into a salad, or simply eat them alongside a piece of fruit to support balanced blood sugar.
Popcorn is actually a great energizing snack. It’s a whole grain and high in fiber, too, says McDaniel, with about 18 g of carbs, 4 g of fiber, and 3 g of protein per 3 cups—so it’s digested more slowly, creating a steadier stream of energy, than something like pretzels. Just go with natural popcorn that doesn’t have a bunch of funky flavor additives, salt, and fat.
Try this: “Enjoy a popcorn-based trail mix with nuts, dark chocolate pieces, and dried cherries for a bowl of energy,” says McDaniel. Or, Nielsen suggests making stove-top popcorn and finishing with a drizzle of olive oil and nutritional yeast—a flavorful, umami-packed seasoning loaded with energy-unlocking B vitamins.
11. Dark Chocolate
Not only does dark chocolate contain calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc, but it also contains an ingredient called theobromine, which—similar to caffeine—can cause a boost in energy and enhance your mood, says McDaniel. For the greatest benefit, she advises opting for cocoa powder, baking chocolate, and dark chocolate.
Try this: Add unsweetened cocoa powder to smoothies, oats, or even your next chili recipe; or pair a piece (or two) of dark chocolate with a handful of nuts for an afternoon pick-me-up.
12. Farro or Wheat Berries
While a piece of whole grain bread with a little nut butter can be a good source of quick energy shortly before a workout, intact whole grains provide more slow-release energy. If you can tolerate gluten and want something with a bit more flavor and texture than quinoa, McDaniel and Nielsen recommend trying farro or wheat berries—whole grain forms of wheat from two different wheat plants. Both have a nutty, chewy texture, and deliver around 36-38 g of carbs, 6-8 g of protein, and 5 g of fiber per ¼-cup (uncooked) serving, as well as micronutrients like iron, magnesium, zinc, and B vitamins.
Try this: Cook up a batch of farro or wheat berries in your instant pot and enjoy it as a cold salad with cut-up tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese, and white beans, suggests McDaniel. Or simply eat them like rice, toss with pasta sauce, or add to stir-fries and salads.
To recap: You want to consume some amount of whole or minimally processed carbohydrates in your diet, ideally paired with fiber, protein, and/or fat to support stable blood sugar. To get the biggest energy bang for your buck, prioritize foods with plenty of micronutrients.
Also keep in mind: How you eat matters. McDaniel recommends eating every 3-4 hours and enjoying a solid afternoon snack when energy levels naturally dip.
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