You can ramp up your energy levels by adding certain (delicious!) foods to your plate every day. But what is the best food for energy?
In this article, we’ll look at where energy comes from, what foods give you energy and 5 energy-sapping foods to avoid.
In all animals, including humans, energy comes from food.
Inside everything we eat and drink (apart from plain water) are energy-rich molecules such as glucose.1
So, when we take a bite of food or a sip of fruit juice, for instance, these energy-rich molecules enter our stomachs and are then broken down by the body to be used as fuel.
Carbohydrates, fat and protein are known as the ‘macronutrients’ – the main energy-giving food groups.
Other nutrients can give us energy, too, including amino acids like leucine, as well as B vitamins and caffeine.2
Getting enough sleep – around seven to nine hours every night – is key to keeping you energised throughout the day.3
Living a generally healthy diet, not smoking, avoiding alcohol and getting some form of daily exercise all affect energy levels, so it might be time to re-examine lifestyle factors which might be robbing you of precious energy.
The good news is- you can increase energy levels through food.
The amount of energy in a food is measured in calories (kcal). However, it’s not as simple as eating lots of calorie-dense foods in order to boost energy levels.
Following this logic, you could end up eating nothing but crisps and ice-cream – a sure-fire way to end up lethargic and lacking in energy.
Instead, consider whether the food you’re eating is a source of sustainable energy.
Look out for fibre, healthy fats, protein and unrefined carbohydrates which provide your body with steady energy over a longer period.
Bananas are one of the best foods for energy.
They’re packed full of energy-rich carbohydrates and contain potassium and vitamin B6, both associated with energy production.4,5
Eating just one banana before a 75km cycling trial has proven just as effective as drinking an endurance-boosting carbohydrate drink.6
Apples are a great energy source thanks to the body-fuelling natural sugars they contain.
They’re also high in fibre, which means the energy that apples provide is of the longer-lasting sort which doesn’t cause a crash like caffeine.7
Much like apples, strawberries provide natural sugar, which your body can quickly turn into energy.
Again, the fibre content of strawberries means the energy they provide is sustainable.
100g strawberries provide nearly 5g natural sugar at only 32 calories.8
Prized for their superior energy-giving properties, these tiny seeds provide stable energy thanks to their protein, healthy fats and fibre.9
A simple DIY energy drink can be made by adding a sprinkling of chia seeds to water and leaving in the fridge until the seeds have fully swollen (around 30 mins).
Oilier, fattier fish such as tuna and salmon are excellent sources of omega 3 fatty acids.
According to some studies, low levels of omega 3 fatty acids are associated with chronic fatigue, so include fish in your diet around twice a week.10
Not only do sweet potatoes provide a steady supply of energy thanks to their fibre and complex carbohydrates, but they also contain manganese, which helps break down nutrients to provide the body with energy.11
Portable and easy to eat, you can take raisins with you everywhere for on-the-go energy.
What’s more, raisins have been shown to produce sustained energy during long term athletic competitions equal to traditional sports energy gels.12
For afternoon slumps, try almonds instead of a sweet treat.
Almonds are a source of vitamin B2 (aka riboflavin), which helps us release energy from food.
They also contain manganese and copper both key to the production of energy.13
Packed with energy-releasing B-vitamins, eggs are one of the best energy foods.
Eggs also provide protein, which slows down the release of glucose into your bloodstream, meaning your energy will be slow and steady.14
Beans are a great source of complex carbohydrates and fibre, meaning they provide steady energy that won’t have the ‘rollercoaster’ effect on your energy levels that eating sugary foods has.
Sometimes overlooked at breakfast in favour of tempting sugary cereals, oats have been powering mankind since ancient times.
Thanks to the beta-glucan (a type of soluble fibre) oats contain, oats slow the release of glucose into the blood.
This means you won’t get a short burst of energy followed by fatigue, but rather a gradual energy release over a few hours.15
Seeds, such as pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds and linseeds contain energy-rich healthy fats.
They also contain protein and fibre – key for slower digestion and, crucially, a slower release of energy.16
Seeds are easy to incorporate into your daily food – just sprinkle into smoothies, porridge, yoghurt and salads.
Greek yoghurt can help you refuel after exercise, giving you a dose of carbohydrates while the protein content (surprisingly high at nearly 9g protein per 100g) ensures the energy from the carbs is digested slowly and won’t give you a spike and crash.17
Oranges are one of the best foods for energy.
They come with natural sugars, which gives you that energy boost without the skyrocketing blood sugar levels that come with other simple sugars.
This is due to the fruit’s high fibre content – around 3g fibre per orange.18
A high-carbohydrate whole grain, brown rice packs plenty of energy.
It’s digested more slowly than white rice, meaning the energy it provides is more sustainable and longer-lasting.19
Are avocados the perfect snack?
High in healthy unsaturated fats and calories, avocados also contain a high amount of fibre.
This means they digest at a steady pace, releasing glucose into the blood slowly and providing steady energy.20
Coming with a healthy dose of protein, fibre and vitamin B9 (folate), chickpeas are also energy-packed enough to keep you going until your next meal.21
Chickpeas are the primary ingredient in the much-loved Middle Eastern dip hummus, so grab some crunchy vegetables and get scooping.
A plant with a reputation in the 21st century West as a superfood, quinoa has been providing energy to people in South American countries for thousands of years.
Quinoa is also a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals.22
Leafy green vegetables like spring greens, spinach, cabbage and watercress are great energy foods.
This is because they’re rich in energy-boosting nutrients such as magnesium, potassium and vitamins A, C and K.23
Matcha is made from the ground leaves of the green tea plant.
As it’s made from the ground leaves matcha has a high concentration of nutrients and caffeine – 64mg caffeine per cup – which gives you a boost.24
Amazingly, this indulgent treat is also a food that gives you energy. It contains caffeine and sugar – both known for giving us a boost.
Eat dark chocolate sparingly, though, as too much sugar can elevate your blood sugar levels too quickly, leading to a slump later.
While it’s true that too many simple carbs will leave you sluggish, don’t cut out brown bread.
It’s slightly higher in calories than white bread, but the fibre it contains from the wheat germ and bran is the key to its slow-release energy, making it the healthier choice.25
Lentils contain fibre and complex carbohydrates, both good for slow-release energy. Lentils also contain iron.
If we don’t have enough iron, our red blood cells aren’t as effective at supplying our organs and tissues with the oxygen we need to function, causing tiredness and fatigue.26
It’s essential for all bodily processes. Staying hydrated is key for optimal mental and physical function, and not drinking enough fluids will leave you feeling weak, tired and foggy.27
Green tea contains the plant compound L-theanine as well as caffeine, both known for their energy-boosting properties.
The combination of the two has proven in one study to be beneficial in improving cognitive performance.28
Caffeine is a stimulant that speeds up the messages between our brain and body. When consumed in small doses, and as part of a healthy diet, it can help us feel more alert.
Sugar-free peanut butter is a healthy, energy-rich choice.
Healthy fats, fibre and protein mean the energy you’ll get is slow-burning, unlike chocolate spread which hits your bloodstream all at once.
Chicken is packed with lean protein.
Not eating enough protein throughout the day can lead to fatigue, so protein-rich foods, in general, may help if you’re experiencing sluggishness.29
Choose a high-fibre, low sugar cereal such as bran flakes which is fortified with vitamin B12.
Since Vitamin B12 helps make red blood cells, a dip in production means there’s less oxygen to keep your cells going, which can lead to feeling tired and weak.
These jammy, sweet fruits are high in natural sugars, giving them a caramel-like taste.
Instead of a slice of cake or chocolate bar as a pick-me-up, get into the habit of eating a few dates instead.
They’re high in potassium and magnesium, both important for energy production, also containing iron and folate along with fibre.
This is why dates are a common ingredient in energy balls.
After an initial rush, sugar causes you to feel more lethargic and tired.
The more sugar you eat, the less orexin your brain is able to produce.
Orexin is a brain chemical that helps keep you awake – so it makes sense that cutting down on sugar will help you feel more alert.30
Refined carbs – also known as ‘simple’ carbs and ‘white’ carbs – are quickly broken down to blood glucose in our bodies.
Then, they behave similarly to sugar by causing a rush of energy while the blood sugar is high, followed by an energy crash as the blood sugar drops.31
White bread, white rice and white pasta are all on this list.
Fried food is tough on digestion.
When a plateful of greasy food hits the stomach, blood is diverted away from the rest of the body, including the brain, leaving you sleepy and unfocused.32
Breakfast is key to giving your body the energy it needs to get you through the day.
A healthy, balanced breakfast offers the energy you need during your busy morning and can stop poor food choices later in the day.33
This should come as no surprise, but alcohol is a huge energy-sapper.
Not only does it disrupt your sleep, making it less restful, your body also has to work overtime metabolising the alcohol, making you feel drained.34
Usually, making lifestyle adjustments (getting more sleep, quitting alcohol, exercising more and including energy-boosting foods in your diet) can help you out of an energy slump.
In some cases, something else might be behind your fatigue.35
Talk to your GP if you’re concerned.
Handpicked content: 4 natural ways to get energy
Last updated: 24 August 2021
Joined Holland & Barrett: Apr 2019
Masters Degree in Toxicology and BSc Hons in Medical Biochemistry
Bhupesh started his career as a Clinical Toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products.
After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.