Who couldn't use more energy? Most of us don't have enough, and when we're feeling especially low, the go-to foods and drinks tend to be high in carbohydrates, especially from sugar and/or caffeine. Those things will give you a temporary boost, but it's often followed by a crash.
So what should you eat to improve your energy? You have a lot of options that are healthier than what you'll find in most vending machines, and the list probably includes a lot of foods you like but didn't know could perk you up in the morning or during a mid-afternoon slump.
You need certain nutrients to feel healthy and energized. That's not because they're stimulants, like caffeine, but because your body uses them to produce energy at the cellular level. That's what really fuels you rather than just speeding things up artificially for a little while.
Some of these energy-producing nutrients include:
When looking at fatigue fighters, you also have to look at carbohydrates and protein. Carbs—which come from sugary foods and grains—give you quick energy, but then your tank runs dry again before long.
Protein and the other nutrients listed above, on the other hand, are better for endurance—long-lasting energy. So the best thing to do is combine carbs with these nutrients. That way, you get an immediate boost but can keep going for the long haul instead of plunging back into sleepiness once you burn off the carbs.
Remember the basic food groups you learned about in elementary school? Let's take a look at each one and see which of its foods have high levels of the vitamins and minerals that give you energy so you know what the best options are, not just for afternoons when you're fading, but to keep you from fading in the first place.
Meat, fish, eggs, and dairy are all good sources of protein. Different foods contain different mixes of other energy-producing nutrients, though.
All of the foods in this category contain protein. Here are some of the other things you can get from meat:
- Beef (red meat): CoQ10, iron, carnitine, B vitamins, magnesium, creatine (in lean cuts)
- Pork: CoQ10, iron, magnesium, potassium
- Poultry (white meat): CoQ10, carnitine, B vitamins, magnesium
Here's what's in fish and seafood:
- Halibut: magnesium, potassium
- Herring: CoQ10, creatine
- Mackerel: CoQ10
- Salmon: magnesium, creatine
- Sardines: CoQ10
- Shellfish: B vitamins
- Trout: CoQ10
- Tuna: creatine
If you're pregnant, have heart disease, or are at risk for heart disease, make sure you talk to your doctor about which types of meat and fish are best to include in your diet. You may need to monitor your diet for levels of fat or potential mercury contamination in fish.
Other animal-based fatigue fighters include:
- Eggs: CoQ10, B vitamins
- Milk & Other Dairy Products: B vitamins, magnesium
If your diet doesn't include a lot of meat or other animal products, you may need to increase your intake of plant-based proteins in order to avoid fatigue.
Sources of protein that don't come from animals include nuts, seeds, and beans. They're especially important for vegetarians and vegans, as well as people who are on other diets that limit how much meat they can eat.
Like meats, many nuts and seeds have nutrients other than protein that can help give you more energy. These include:
- Almonds: iron, magnesium, potassium
- Amaranth (a grain-like seed): B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, protein
- Cashews: magnesium, potassium
- Chia seeds: magnesium, potassium
- Peanuts: CoQ10, magnesium
- Pistachio nuts: CoQ10, iron, magnesium, potassium
- Pumpkin seeds: magnesium, potassium
- Quinoa (a grain-like seed): iron, magnesium, potassium
- Sesame seeds: CoQ10, iron, magnesium, potassium
- Walnuts: iron, magnesium, potassium
Beans that are good for a boost of energy include:
- Black beans: iron, magnesium, potassium
- Edamame: CoQ10, potassium
- Soybeans: CoQ10, iron, magnesium, potassium
Remember that protein helps with endurance, and that coupling it with carbohydrates can give you both immediate and sustained energy.
Fruit can be an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, including those that help your body produce energy. Fresh, whole fruit is best, since it can lose vital nutrients as it gets older or as it's dried. (Dried fruits and juices tend to be much higher in sugar than fresh fruits, as well.)
Some good choices when it comes to fatigue-fighting fruit include:
- Apples: CoQ10, magnesium
- Bananas: magnesium, potassium
- Blueberries: magnesium, potassium
- Dates: potassium
- Goji berries: iron, potassium
- Cantaloupe: magnesium, potassium
- Lemons: magnesium, potassium
- Oranges: CoQ10, magnesium, potassium
- Raisins: iron, magnesium, potassium
- Strawberries: CoQ10, magnesium, potassium
Fruits are also high in natural sugars (carbohydrates), so choosing the ones above may help you get both short-term and long-term energy.
Vegetables contain multiple energy-producing nutrients, and some will even give you a little bit of protein (although not nearly as much as sources like meat, eggs, dairy, nuts, and beans).
Here are several that can help eliminate your fatigue:
- Asparagus: magnesium, potassium, protein
- Avacoados: potassium, magnesium, protein
- Broccoli: CoQ10, magnesium, potassium, protein
- Carrot: magnesium, potassium
- Cauliflower: CoQ10, magnesium, potassium
- Spinach: iron, magnesium, potassium, protein
- Squash: magnesium, potassium, protein
- Sweet potatoes: magnesium, potassium, protein
Like fruit, vegetables do contain carbohydrates, but generally less than fruit has.
Grains are a source of carbohydrates for quick energy as well as some nutrients for sustained energy. Some good choices are:
- Brown Rice: iron, magnesium, potassium, protein
- Oatmeal: iron, magnesium, potassium, protein
- Whole wheat: iron, magnesium, potassium, protein
- White rice: iron, magnesium, potassium, protein
Many breakfast cereals contain these grains and also are fortified with vitamins and minerals, so they can be good sources of fatigue fighters, as well.
A Note on Milk Substitutes
Popular substitutes for milk contain some energy-producing nutrients, either naturally or through fortification.
However, these beverages may be less similar to their primary ingredients than you might think. That's due to substances being lost during processing or because of added water or other ingredients. Here's how some of them stack up:
- Almond milk: high levels of potassium but small amounts of iron, magnesium, and protein
- Rice milk: small amounts of B vitamins and protein
- Soy milk: moderate levels of riboflavin (a B vitamin), magnesium, and protein; high levels of potassium
The exact amounts of these nutrients varies by brand and recipe, and some kinds may be fortified and thus provide more than others. The best way to know exactly what you're getting is to read the labels.
A Note on Caffeine
Caffeine gives you quick energy, but it's a stimulant, which means it speeds up your body's processes rather than nourishing your cells. It's not an inherently bad thing—in fact, coffee and tea both have some health benefits.
However, caffeine can cause some problems. You probably know it can make you jittery and disrupt your sleep, especially if you have a lot or consume it late in the day.
On top of that, though, it can be especially bad for people with certain conditions that feature impaired energy production, such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Some experts on these illnesses call caffeine and other stimulants "checks your body can't cash," because they provide false energy and later leave the body even more drained than usual.
If you have a condition that features low energy and significant fatigue, be sure to ask your doctor about the possible negative repercussions of caffeine and other stimulants.
A Word From Verywell
If you seem to have chronically low energy, be sure to talk to your doctor about it. It may be due to lifestyle factors, such as high stress or inadequate sleep, but it may also stem from nutritional deficiencies or an undiagnosed illness. No matter the cause, improving your dietary choices is a good thing.
When choosing foods, you're probably interested in more than just how much energy it can give you. Certainly, there's a lot more to nutritional profiles than the vitamins and minerals discussed here. However, knowing these foods and what they contain can help you make smart choices about your diet. Eating for more energy may help you avoid reaching for unhealthy snacks or stimulants to get you through the day as well, which could lead to better overall health.