Pieces of dark chocolate

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12 Energy-Boosting Foods That'll Help You Avoid the Dreaded Midday Crash

Use these dietitian-recommended foods to fuel you throughout the day.

By Stephanie EckelkampUpdated May 22, 2024


Regardless of whether you start your day with a high-intensity cycling class or prefer to sleep in, one thing’s for sure: You need enough energy to carry you from morning to night. The source of that energy? Food.

Properly fueling your body with the best foods for energy is essential if you want to perform your best during workouts and in your everyday life. Here, we’ll do a deep dive into what exactly it means to eat for energy and share an expert-approved list of nutritious, energy-boosting foods.

What Makes Food Energizing?

Essentially, eating for energy means two things:

  1. Consuming sufficient calories (because calories are stored energy) via the right balance of macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fats)

  2. Getting enough of the vitamins and minerals required to efficiently “unlock” and utilize the energy from these macros

Let’s unpack this a bit by digging deeper into macronutrients and micronutrients (aka vitamins and minerals) and learning how to incorporate them all into your diet.

How Carbs, Proteins, and Fats Can Boost (or Zap) Energy 

Even if you’re eating enough calories for your current activity level, 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) in your everyday diet, but it’s all about choosing the right carbs and pairing them with the correct foods.

Carbs are the body’s primary source of energy and the brain’s preferred source for energy as well,” says registered dietitian Carrie Gabriel, 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. Your body takes longer to digest these, which keeps your blood sugar steady and avoids the dreaded “crash” you may get after eating refined or processed carbs like white bread, crackers, or juice.

What you pair your carbs 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 feeling 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, RDN, a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics.

How Micronutrients Affect Your Energy Levels

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,” Nielsen says. 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 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,” Nielsen says. “If you skimp on iron, fatigue is a common side effect, particularly for active folks as muscles have increased oxygen needs during exercise.” Additionally, people that menstruate may need an extra boost of iron during the week of their period, especially if they’re on a plant-based diet that lacks iron-rich animal proteins. 

  • 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,” McDaniel says. “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, Nielsen says. 

  • 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, McDaniel says. Magnesium is also associated with improved sleep quality, which you should keep in mind while choosing your bedtime snack.

One last piece of food for thought: How you eat matters. McDaniel recommends eating every three to four  hours and enjoying a solid afternoon snack when energy levels naturally dip. You’ll also need to make sure you’re fueling properly before your workouts and making smart nutritional choices post-workout to speed recovery and build more muscle.

Top 12 Foods to Boost Your Energy Levels

We asked our experts to share their go-to foods for energy and their best tips for preparing these foods. Here’s what they said.

Bowl of kale

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1. Green Vegetables: 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, so it 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, sauté 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.

closeup shot of legumes

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2. Beans and Lentils

Legumes are the ultimate slow-digesting, complex carbohydrate—their combination of plant protein and fiber helps maintain blood sugar and therefore stabilize energy levels, according to McDaniel. Lentils, for example, are a particularly great pick, containing nearly 9 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber per half-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,” Nielsen says. Or sauté up canned black beans and salsa, load it into corn tortillas, and top with cheese for quick plant-based tacos, McDaniel suggests.

Bowl of oatmeal with blueberries

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3. Oatmeal

Swapping your morning cereal for a breakfast bowl of oatmeal is a no-brainer for energy. Gabriel and McDaniel are both big fans. Minimally processed steel-cut oats provide around 27 grams of slow-digesting carbohydrates, 4 grams of fiber, and 5 grams 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, McDaniel advises soaking them in a hot liquid first, allowing them to cool, and then refrigerating them.) 

Photo of bananas

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4. Bananas

Bananas are a good source of carbohydrates (27 grams per medium banana, including 3 grams of fiber). Because they have minimal fat and protein, they’re easy to digest and provide quick-acting energy—making them a great pre-workout snack. 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, you can try a smoothie with frozen banana, milk or non-dairy milk, protein powder, peanut butter, and spinach (nope, you can’t taste the spinach!).

Chopped up sweet potato

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5. Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are another easy-to-digest source of complex carbohydrates, similar to bananas—a medium sweet potato has around 26 grams of carbs along with 4 grams 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 thinly slicing the potato, tossing it in olive oil and seasonings of your choice, and baking until the slices are crispy. 

Cut up red bell pepper on cutting board with knife

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5. Sweet Potatoes

“Just one half-cup of red bell pepper contains more than 100 percent of your daily vitamin C requirement,” Nielsen says. 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.  

closeup shot of blueberries

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7. Blueberries

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,” McDaniel says. “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.

Closeup of hemp hearts

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7. 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 percent of your daily omega-3 requirement, a quarter of your daily zinc and iron needs, and almost 50 percent 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, you can substitute a half cup of flour with hemp hearts in most muffin or cookie recipes for extra flavor and texture, suggests Nielsen.

Closeup shot of nuts

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9. Nuts

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. 

Closeup shot of popcorn

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10. Popcorn

Popcorn is actually one of the best foods for energy. It’s a whole grain and high in fiber, too, says McDaniel, with about 18 grams of carbs, 4 grams of fiber, and 3 grams 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,” McDaniel says. 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. 

Stack of dark chocolate

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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, McDaniel says. 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.

Bowl of farro

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12. Farro or Wheat Berries

Although 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 grams of carbs, 6-8 grams of protein, and 5 grams of fiber per quarter 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 sliced 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. 

The Takeaway

Whether you’re focused on pre-race nutrition or simply waking up each morning with a spring in your step, high-energy foods can help you feel upbeat and ready for action. 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 bang for your buck, prioritize foods with plenty of micronutrients. And if you have specific dietary needs (like a gluten intolerance or a plant-based diet), consider enlisting the help of a professional dietitian to find the best foods for energy for you.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.


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