What happens when you see the “fuel low” alert pop up on the dashboard of your car? You probably head to the gas station as soon as time allows to avoid running on fumes and begin filling your tank. Compare that statement to how you personally respond when your energy is low and you’ve not fed your body for a while. Do you try and hold off until the clock indicates it is time to eat, or do you instead stop and fuel your body with an energizing meal or snack? I hope you answered that prioritizing fuel is the ideal step!
In researching this topic a bit more prior to writing this post, I learned that some nutrition and fitness professionals dislike the fuel analogy. From what I could gather, they felt this comparison was somewhat misleading since there are lots of factors that impact your energy levels other than fuel. I can’t disagree that many components play a part in balancing energy levels, but I also think the opening paragraph of this blog post illustrates how often humans ignore their own physiological signals.
Just as cars require gas to run, every human body needs fuel for energy. The literal fuel your body requires for energy, with some caveats, is known as glucose. Glucose is the byproduct breakdown of sugar, which comes from foods such as fruits, vegetables, and grains (i.e. carbohydrates). Glucose also relies on vitamins, minerals, and amino acids to help with metabolism and proper energy production.
When glucose isn’t available, such as through an intentional avoidance of carbohydrates in the diet, the body can turn to other physiological mechanisms to create energy. You may have heard of this possibility from individuals promoting the keto diet (or other low carbohydrate diets) as the body can use stored glucose (i.e. glycogen), fatty acids or ketones for energy production as well.
Hopefully by now you’ve been exposed to the importance of becoming your own metabolic detective. Even when it comes to fueling your body with an “energy first” focus, it is important to continue to practice this, particularly if you notice your energy spiking or draining within an 1 or 2 of eating. Although it can be normal to experience some degree of energy drain after a meal, having unstable energy isn’t ideal, particularly when you require a higher level of productivity or focus to get through your busy day.
If you’ve been eating pretty low carb and you’ve been feeling like you are in more of an energy slump than surplus, you may want to consider playing around with carbohydrates. We often encourage clients to start to play around with “bites” so as to find your own sweet spot for carbohydrate intake. It may also be helpful to focus on increasing fruits and vegetables first before adding in other grains, mainly due to the high nutrient value in plant-based foods compared to some other carbohydrate sources.
If you focus on increasing fruits and vegetables, and maybe some higher fiber foods like beans and lentils, with an “energy first” focus, you should also have more of a gradual rise in blood sugar rather than a sharp, dramatic rise that accompanies simpler carbohydrates. A less dramatic rise also means a less dramatic fall, which may cause the subsequent energy crash as well. Balancing your blood sugar can help to stabilize your energy levels.
Meal size is also known to have an impact on energy levels. Using the bites approach to increase your carbohydrates also allows you to keep your meal size reasonable. It is important to understand that digestion requires energy, so portion control can factor into your “energy first” approach to eating. If you’ve ever experienced what some people call a “food coma” this probably comes as no surprise. Simply put, the more you eat, the more energy your digestive system requires to break down your food into fuel. The energy that is diverted to digestion after a larger meal may be put to better use through taking an afternoon walk or getting in a quick HIIT workout after work.
More specific information on some other nutritional aspects of energy mentioned earlier, such as vitamins and minerals, or this blog post which outlines supplements, may be of interest to you. While supplements may be helpful to boost your energy, supplements are not meant to take the place of real, whole foods. Before going the supplement route, I’d suggest prioritizing a “food first” approach by using a food journal to document trends and triggers throughout the day.
If you work on becoming a better metabolic detective, you’ll soon understand how important it is to check in with your body throughout the day. For example, on a day when you have a higher starch lunch, how is your afternoon energy level? Compare that to a day when you skip the starchy carbs and focus on more protein and fiber instead. Notice any differences then? You can use this same check-in with yourself within 1-2 hours of eating and following an intense exercise session.
Hopefully by now you understand that tuning into your body is critically important for balancing energy. Again, while many factors play a part in energy levels, I’m sure every person understands how important stable energy is for supporting a productive and joyful life. For more blog posts on the topic of energy, you can check out the following links: “Meals Built For You”, “The 3 Batteries”, “Top 10 Ways To Increase Energy”, and “The Practical Circumstances of Your Metabolism”. I truly hope if you’ve been suffering from low energy this post will help you to make some tweaks and lead you to a life full of more vigor!