Has this ever happened to you? After a long day at work, I headed for my car, ready to break a personal best time to get home. Suddenly I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach. Oh sh*t, did I leave the lights on? There goes any chance of getting that record commute time. Of course, this story has a happy ending when a friendly stranger happened to have one of those emergency car kits my dad always told me to get. A quick boost with the jumper cables and I was back on track.
How many times a day do you need a boost? Maybe you need help focusing before heading into a long meeting. It could just be your usual mid-afternoon energy slump where you wish you had a desk like George Costanza, Either way you need something to provide a boost of energy to make it through the day. And caffeine is your friend with the jumper cables.
Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those lectures telling you to stop drinking caffeine or coffee. They are not bad for you in reasonable amounts. Coffee, the go-to for most people, gets a lot of conflicting press. Actual research by real life scientists shows that some coffee is good, but more might not be better. Your best bet is 1-3 cups (8-24 oz) of coffee per day. Also, go black if possible. Adding cream, sugar, or other additives reduces any health benefits of coffee and sneaks unnecessary calories and artificial sweeteners into your diet.
So Coffee Is Okay But…
Some people get the jitters or a headache from too much caffeine. Or maybe your tolerance has built up to the point where you require a lot more coffee to feel that kick of energy and mental clarity. Either way, if you want to cut down on your coffee/caffeine intake, I have good news.
First, there are alternatives that provide a more balanced energy boost during your day. Second, with proper nutrition, you can maintain a steady balance of energy throughout the day. In fact, some people find they don’t need the quick boosts from coffee or other caffeinated drinks after changing their diet.
First, let’s talk about some alternatives for short-term energy boosts.
Option # 1:
Switch to tea in the afternoon instead of reaching for that second round of coffee. Green, Black, Oolong and Chai tea are well-known substitutes for your afternoon coffee. Here are some less common teas with surprising benefits you won’t find in coffee.
- Guayusa: What if I told you there is an all-natural drink that provides energy, boosts metabolism to support weight loss, balances blood sugar while increasing mental clarity? This “superleaf” from Ecuador contains 50% more antioxidants than green tea, is packed with minerals and vitamins along with anti-inflammatory and immune system boosting properties. If that wasn’t enough, it provides balanced energy without the jitters and crash that comes with coffee/caffeine.
- Yerba Mate: This tea provides balanced energy and focus similar to guayusa. This is due to a combination of 3 stimulants: theobromine (found in chocolate), caffeine and theophylline. It’s also a nutritional powerhouse full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
- Pu-erh: This Chinese tea is starting to grow in popularity in North America. Unlike coffee, the caffeine release in this tea is more time-released than an instant spike. Like the other teas discussed here, it contains healthy antioxidants, aids in digestion and aids in weight loss. What makes this tea unique is the leaves are fermented before being dried. Consuming fermented foods is important for a healthy gut. I don’t have any science to back this part up but after drinking pu-erh tea, I just feel good!
A big glass of water with lemon/lime or electrolytes. You might be surprised how well it works. Here are two of my favorite flavored-water recipes that leave you feeling energized without the added calories and caffeine of most energy drink products.
- 2 cups of water; juice of half a lemon or 1 tbsp of bottled lemon juice; and 1 tbsp of apple cider vinegar
- 2 cups of water and 1 scoop of electrolyte powder (my personal favorite is Vega Electrolyte Hydrator)
Get up and move. Often that tired feeling is our body telling us to move. It’s no secret we sit way too much. If your work situation allows it, go for a 5 minute walk outside. Even a quick walk around inside can help. Stop and talk to co-worker. Could some of your meetings be held while you walk instead of sitting in a stuffy meeting room?
What If You Could Have Energy All Day Without Relying On Caffeine?
A car battery is designed to work so that it’s charging while your car is running. It efficiently stores excess energy until you need it later. There are a lot of parts involved in getting your car engine running smoothly and keeping that battery charged. A car needs much more than just fuel to run. Remember that when you see a product ad pitching “food as fuel”.
Your body’s ability to run optimally throughout the day with consistent energy, is not as simple as “calories in, calories out”. There’s more to energy balance that what you can see in the mirror. It has a lot to do with what is going on in your cells.
Both a positive (more energy in than out) and negative energy balance (more energy out than in) affect more than weight gain or loss. Everything from your metabolism to your hormonal balance to your mood is affected by your energy balance.
For example, a study that examined military recruits found that severe negative energy balance led to massive metabolic decline and an inability to concentrate; it reduced thyroid hormone production, testosterone levels, and physical performance.
On the other hand, a positive energy balance from overeating (and/or under-exercising) has it’s own consequences. Weight gain is the most obvious, but health down to the cellular level suffers too: plaques can build up in our arteries, blood pressure and cholesterol can increase, we can become insulin resistant and begin to suffer from diabetes, our risk of certain cancers increases, and the list goes on.
Thanks to the typical North American diet, many of us are overfed and undernourished.
Do you often find yourself tired and lacking energy a couple of hours after a meal?
This could be caused by an energy imbalance in your body (assuming there are no medical conditions involved). A body is said to be in energy balance when energy flow into the body and out of the body is equal. Often the best evidence of this balance is a steady body weight and relatively consist energy levels throughout the day. Of course, its normal to get tired at the end of the day (and at the beginning for those of us non-morning people).
So What Controls Energy Balance?
It prevents excessive swings in either direction (positive or negative), so you don’t have highs and lows during the day AND the body can lose fat or gain lean mass in a healthy way. I believe that’s called a win-win.
When your body is in a carb-burning state, you feel the need to constantly “refuel”. When you shift into a fat burning state your energy levels throughout the day remain steady. So how do you shift into fat burning mode?
Move To A Carb-Controlled Diet
These days it seems any conversation about eating starts and ends with carbs. If you’re not familiar with my approach to nutrition, I prefer to encourage rather than restrict. Because positive encouragement works better than negative enforcement to enable change. So when it comes to carbs, you don’t need to restrict the amount of carbs you eat, you need to take control of your carb intake. A low carb diet can leave you feeling miserable because our body needs carbs. By controlling the timing, type and amount of carbs you can successfully shift into a fat burning state and maintain your energy levels throughout the day.
Not All Carbs Are Created Equal
It’s important to understand there are 3 different types of carb foods.
#1 Fiber-rich carbs:
This includes vegetables, fruits, and legumes. You may be surprised to find vegetables listed here as a carb. You may not be as surprised to find fruits and legumes are high in carbs if you are familiar with diets like Paleo and Atkins. But don’t freak out. These foods are absorbed slowly because of their high fiber content. So they will help control blood sugar and hunger. They are also loaded with nutrients.
Here is a good example of too much information causing “analysis paralysis”. A client of mine came to me with a question recently. He was eating carrot sticks when a co-worker decided to offer him a nutrition tip that carrots are high in sugar so he shouldn’t eat them. He was concerned that maybe he should stop eating carrots. What this co-worker didn’t know is this client has difficulty eating enough vegetables in a day. So eating these carrots every day with his lunch was progress. And it was almost undone with a single comment from a co-worker.
Always remember your situation is unique and what works for someone else, may not be what you need. Here is an easy way to decide if you should eat any particular food: Low calorie density + High nutrient density = Eat it.
#2 Starchy carbs:
Foods such as quinoa, oats, sweet potatoes, long grain rice and sprouted grain breads are very dense sources of carbs. They are a bit lower in nutrients than fiber-rich carb foods.
Starchy carbs are best consumed during the 3 hours or so after exercise. During this time your muscles are like a big sponge and will use the carbs efficiently.
Maintaining a consistent level of energy is about limiting your spikes in blood sugar. It’s important to keep portion size moderate to maintain energy balance. Hold out your hand and make a cup, like you are trying to hold some water in it. That is about one serving of starchy carbs for women. A serving for men would be 2 cupped handfuls.
#3 Refined sugary carbs:
I probably don’t need to spend much time describing what foods are in this category. You just have to look around….they are everywhere. That’s a big problem for most of us because…
When food is around, we tend to eat it.
Most refined sugary carbs are empty calories that don’t provide any health benefits. But, eating them during or immediately after exercise may give your body a quick energy boost and accelerate recovery. Especially if your workout lasts over an hour.
However, in most cases, you need to consider the big picture: what other substances are in the food and what is it going to do for your health?
To take advantage of sugary carbs after a long workout, try and go with nutrient dense sources such as figs, dates, and raisins. But don’t use exercise as an opportunity to reward yourself with as many refined sugary carbs as you want.
When Is A Good Time to Eat Carbs?
First, it’s important to note that carb timing is an advanced nutritional technique. If you’re just getting started with carb control, don’t worry too much about timing. It’s more important to get comfortable with type and quantity first. When you’re ready to focus on timing you can come back to this part.
The research is 100% clear when it comes to carb timing. Regardless of your body type, whether you’re diabetic or lean and healthy, your body’s ability to handle starchy and refined carbs is MUCH improved during and after exercise.
So What Does All Of This Look Like On Your Plate?
Keeping in mind that we are all at different stages of improving our diet, I”m going to outline what you should aim for when it’s time to put food on your plate.
Anytime meals you have throughout the day should consist of:
- Healthy fats
- Water or green tea
Post-workout meals are your first meal after exercise and should consist of:
- Starchy carbs
- Water or green tea
You’ll notice there isn’t much fat in the post workout meal. This is because fat slows the digestion of protein and carbs at a time when you want to absorb them a little quicker. Don’t worry if you have some fat in this meal.
The point is to try and limit fat intake in your first meal following exercise. The post workout portion is slightly larger as you’ll add a small portion of starchy carbs on top of a full plate of protein and fruits/vegetables.
Keep in mind you should use smaller or larger plates based on your body size.
Here is a more visual way to look at your ideal plate:
Looking for more?
I put together a one page PDF cheatsheet with these plate portions and some recommended foods. Print it out and put it on your fridge!
A Happy Ending
So there you have it. You now have a few new alternatives to coffee when you need a quick energy boost. Even better, it’s possible to have energy all day without relying on stimulants like caffeine.