When we’re on a mission to change our physical appearance and health, nutrition and eating habits become critically important for balancing energy needs. If dietary energy intake is not matched appropriately with individual goals and needs, metabolic “whiplash” can occur. This can result in HEC going out of check – hunger, energy and cravings. If HEC goes out of check, that means one thing. The approach is unsustainable.

As a health coach, I often see the impact of fatigue and low energy on my client’s quality of life and functioning. It’s not uncommon for folks to feel very tired or exhausted on most days or every day. Oftentimes, energy issues can be traced to one or more of our habits or routines, particularly nutrition and eating habits. This issue is exacerbated when we cut calories to lose weight. 

“Eat Less, Exercise More” rarely leads to long-term success. Full stop. 

A caloric deficit is often necessary to achieve fat loss, but there’s a threshold – a happy middle ground if you will. Just enough to support fat loss, but not so large that it throws energy out of check. The Goldilocks Zone.

When the caloric deficit in our diet is too large or too large for too long, issues with energy often arise. The pattern can vary from person to person, from consistently low energy levels throughout the day to a roller coaster ride; however, the trickle-down effects are often the same. 

Essentially, it looks something like this:

Low energy or energy crash –> exert willpower not to eat or ignore it because you’re on a mission to lose weight –> increased adrenaline (stress hormone) –> emotionally reactive state –> makes it harder to make healthier choices later in the day when you’re naturally more tired, and likely MORE susceptible to snacking and other late night shenanigans.

If this happens over and over again, results tend to slow or go the other way. Motivation dwindles. Health goals get tabled until motivation and drive to try again return. Sound familiar? 

Let’s get off this old tired ride, shall we?

Instead, we want our nutrition and eating habits to stabilize blood sugar and energy levels. From that place, we feel calm but alert, which makes it easier to make healthier choices in the moment AND later in the day when we are naturally more tired/have less willpower.  

Eating Habits & Energy. What you can do to boost your energy levels today.

Meal Timing & Composition 

Your brain has a good supply of fuel for 3-4 hours after eating protein, vs 1.5-2 hours after eating predominantly carbohydrates. If you find yourself feeling irritable (aka hangry) when hungry, then it’s time to consider your stress levels. The adrenals, part of the stress response system, helps to regulate blood sugar levels. If the saying “feed me now or I’ll kill you” resonates, then stress hormones are playing a major role. 

Focusing on protein at each meal will help to balance cortisol and insulin levels – key hormones involved in stress and energy metabolism. 

Action time! 

In order to tweak protein intake and meal timing for stable and consistent energy levels (vs up & down), we need a little data first. Because we don’t know what we don’t know. 

Step 1 – Note two pieces of information over the course of a day:

1. Meals: Time of consumption – meal, snack or beverage (anything consumed), and what you consumed. Tip: Keep this brief. For example, coffee and Timbits. Or, carrots and peanut butter. What (vs how much) you are consuming is today’s focus.

2. Energy: When do you feel the most energized? When do you feel the least energized, or when do you notice a significant energy crash? 

For both your highest and lowest energy points, record the time of day and a numeric score to indicate your energy levels. For energy levels, use a numeric rating scale from 1-10, where 10= high energy; stable & consistent and 1 = is low energy; up & down. For example 10 am = highest energy level. A score of 8/10. 4 pm = energy crash. A score of 3/10.

Final step: At the end of the day, circle or highlight the meal that immediately precedes your lowest energy score. Have that information handy for the next step.

Step 2 – Evidence-informed nutritional tools to stabilize and boost energy levels.

Pick one meal to apply one of the following tools. 

As mentioned earlier, examine the meal/snack that immediately precedes your lowest energy score. What do you notice about that meal? For example, did you wait too long to eat? Or, did you eat a meal with little to no protein?

Tool 1. If your lowest energy score follows a meal with less than 15-20 grams of protein, then try this tool:

  • Try adding 15-20 grams of your preferred protein to the snack/meal that precedes this low energy period.
  • Serving size: For protein, a good general rule of thumb is to use your palm. 1 palm = ~20-30 g or ~3-4 oz of protein. It’s not perfect, but it’s a handy and consistent reference. Pun intended! 

Tool 2. If your lowest energy score follows an extended fasting window or your meal was delayed too long, then consistent meal timing is going to be critical for you.

  • If time permits, aim to eat earlier.
  • If your score was 1-3, eat 1-2 hours earlier.
  • If your score was 3-6, eat 30 min – 1 hour earlier.
  • Times may vary depending on your schedule and personal preferences, but the key is to eat at consistent times, and at a frequency that keeps your energy at a 6 or greater between meals. If this score falls below 6, then adjust the timing of your meals accordingly. 

In some cases, both tools might be appropriate. If your lowest energy score follows a meal with less than 15-20 grams of protein AND your lowest energy score follows an extended fasting window or your meal was delayed too long (causing a case of the “hangry’s”), then use BOTH tools. 

Protein & Meal Timing. Bringing it all together.

Prioritize Protein

Your brain has a good supply of fuel for 3-4 hours after eating protein, vs 1.5-2 hours after eating predominantly carbohydrates. Focusing on protein at each meal will balance cortisol and insulin levels – key hormones involved in stress and energy metabolism. 

Do not wait too long to eat

Under conditions of blood sugar dysregulation or decreasing blood sugar levels (due to fasting and/or skipping meals), adrenaline is released to fuel the brain. Adrenaline is a stress hormone. Under its influence, the brain shifts its response from operating in the prefrontal cortex to the limbic system. When we are influenced by our limbic system, we are responding with the filter of our sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze). This puts people in a very emotionally reactive, past-based mindset. This is not conducive to healthy behaviour change

Recipe ideas to boost protein intake

Convenience choice: Naked protein shakes (protein powder + water). For a more balanced macronutrient shake (contains protein, carb, and fat), blend 20-25 g of vegan or whey protein + milk/alternative milk of choice or water, ¼ cup of fruit, and 1 tbsp of ground flax, chia, or nut butter of choice.

Food-based idea: Two eggs, 1 piece of toast, one apple or pear (contain approx. 14 grams of protein).

My favourite: Greek Yogurt or Coconut yogurt with 1 scoop (30 grams) of vegan protein (approx. 25 grams of protein) + 1 tbsp of cocoa powder + 1 tsp of cinnamon. Stir in fresh berries (based on what’s fresh and available). 

Other ideas? Please share your favs in the comments section below.

The Science of Snacking

Protein snacks can also act as a buffer. Small frequent meals that contain protein help the brain synthesize dopamine (responsible for feelings of motivation & drive) and serotonin (responsible for feelings of happiness) and stabilize blood sugar (responsible for sustained energy and mental clarity). 

Eating protein with snacks is ideal for blood sugar regulation. Unfortunately, we don’t always have access to protein-based snacks. Plan ahead, folks! Keep protein snacks handy, like your favourite protein bar or a ¼ cup of nuts (6-8 grams of protein) in your car, at work, or in your bag. 

If you start to experience the signs and symptoms of low blood sugar, which happen quickly, consider adding dried fruit to your nut mix or a piece of fresh fruit (approx. 15 grams of carbohydrates). An energy bar works well too. 

This approach is not going to replace a meal, but it will help to keep irritability at bay and decrease the intensity of hunger and cravings later in the day.

Energy balance in the context of YOUR nutrition & eating habits

At this point, you’ve gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of your nutrition and eating habits, and how they might be influencing your energy levels. From this place, you are in a position to make informed eating choices that truly support your energy needs. Maybe even exercise!

Great job, metabolic detectives! 

Image credit: Momentum Martial Arts (Saskatoon) Facebook Account