We all want enough energy to live our lives to the fullest, but the reality for many Americans is that they have just enough to get through the day. Rather than powering through your daily grind, the day grinds you to a pulp and you have little left over to tend to your children, enjoy your relationship, or engage in your hobbies.
Women who visit my office frequently tell me they feel like they’re living at 30 percent capacity and have lost their gusto for life, even though they seem to be doing all the right things – eating a diet of whole foods, staying hydrated, and logging enough sleep. When I investigate a bit further, I usually find that they’re making some, or all, of these lesser-talked about food mistakes that sap energy.
If you feel like you’re running on empty despite your best efforts to eat right, you may be committing one of these cardinal energy sins, all of which have to do with not just what you’re eating, but also when and how you’re eating. Here are some of the biggest mistakes you could be making, based on misguided advice and misinformation about what your body needs to get fired up.
You’re obsessing over carbs – and missing the boat on protein
The carb phobia that has had us in its grip for far too long is finally beginning to recede. But while you were swearing off bread, potatoes and other starchy carbs, you might have missed out on what you should be including. Fruits and veggies are great, don’t get me wrong – but fruit for breakfast and a salad for lunch won’t cut it.
Your body needs protein for sustained energy and to prevent blood sugar crashes from carbohydrate consumption (yes, fruits are carbs). I have long taught people that a healthy protein shake in the morning is important for controlling blood sugar levels all day, which keep your energy intact.
A gluten-, soy- and dairy-free protein shake, blended with a high-quality protein powder (preferably made from chia, rice, or pea protein) is a solid way to start your day. If you don’t like protein shakes, have some turkey sausage, two egg whites, or another high-protein food (at least 20 grams) before heading out the door.
Most American breakfast foods, such as bagels, muffins and croissants do you more harm than good, sending you into a downward energy spiral – leading you to reach for more short-term snacks that only do more of the same.
You’re eating too infrequently
Skipping meals, and going too many hours without eating in general, can create stress in the body. In the midst of your busy days, remembering to eat breakfast or make time for a healthy lunch isn’t an option; it’s vital.
But when you don’t eat every three to four hours, your blood sugar can drop—and your body sees that as a crisis and will slow you down. To deal with that blood sugar crisis, it will ask your adrenals to produce more cortisol to raise your blood sugar (since you have none in your body from food). When you wipe through your cortisol reserves to deal with low blood sugar, you feel burned out, edgy and exhausted. So don’t rough it: Aim for three meals and two snacks per day.
You think if you don’t have allergies, foods don't pose a problem
You don’t need to have been diagnosed with celiac disease to have a negative response to certain foods (like gluten, for example). That’s because food sensitivities are totally different than food allergies. A lot of my patients think that because their lips don’t blow up from eating a strawberry or they haven’t been diagnosed with an official disease or allergy, they’re safe to eat whatever they want. It’s just not true.
When you eat something you’re sensitive to, you might have an immediate reaction like bloating or gas – but you may have no reaction in your belly at all. You could have reactions like acne, joint pain, trouble losing weight, or low energy, and all of these might happen slowly over time, never leading you to make the connection (and thus maintaining a downward spiral in energy).
The two most common food sensitivities are to dairy and gluten. You’ve probably heard a lot about gluten sensitivity already; it’s well known that gluten can trigger symptoms such as bloating, migraine headaches, fatigue, and brain fog, and it may even contribute to the onset of autoimmune diseases for some people. Dairy can cause many of the same gastrointestinal and energy problems. Yet even if you stop drinking milk and eating yogurt, there are dairy-based additives such as casein and whey snuck into foods like chip dip, thickened sauces and soups, and even canned chicken broth. Try eliminating gluten and dairy, each for one week, to see how you feel without them in your diet.
You think sugar is just bad for your waistline
You already know that sugar is stored as fat in the body, which is why if you’re looking to lose weight, you cut out the sweet stuff. But that’s not the only reason to go easy on the sugar. The average American is consuming about 25 teaspoons of sugar each day without even knowing it. Sugar is hiding everywhere, in every packaged food you can imagine: ketchup, salad dressing, hamburger buns and even granola bars (contrary to popular opinion, granola is not a health food). Even many organic packaged foods are loaded with sugar in the form of honey, molasses or dates.
Besides dramatically boosting your chances of becoming diabetic (or insulin resistant, a pre-diabetic state), sugar in any form causes your blood sugar to spike and crash, which leads to a major drop in energy. Make a habit of checking food labels on everything you buy and ditch foods with more than 6 grams of sugar per serving. And when you get a hankering for something sweet, it’s usually a sign of low blood sugar – so have an apple with almond butter or a handful of almonds.
Feeding your body the right foods at the right times can dramatically change how you feel, as well as how quickly and capably you can respond to the many demands of your day. If you can make the decision to shift some old habits, you have the ability to feel more focused and alert than you have in a long time.