How to Eat Foods for Energy in the Right Balance

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    The best foods for energy are those that support balanced blood sugar and give you the most nutrients. Learn how macro and micronutrients impact energy.

    How does food become energy?

    All food can actually become energy. But certain foods or ways of eating are better at promoting energy than others, which we’ll discuss more in this article.

    The process of getting energy from food is called cellular respiration. It’s called this since our cells actually use oxygen, which comes from respiration (breathing), to convert the particles in food into the energy molecule ATP, or adenosine triphosphate. ATP is the form of energy that cells can use to perform their many duties.

    Before cellular energy is made, foods must first go through the process of digestion, which involves breakdown of large food components into their most basic units-- amino acids, fatty acids, and sugar molecules like glucose.

    The importance of food for energy

    All of the energy in your body that enables it to function comes from food you eat. That’s a pretty hefty role that food plays in your life! The macronutrients which include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats provide calories to fuel your body’s internal processes, your daily activities, and exercise.

    Vitamins and minerals, on the other hand, don’t provide calories but are needed in the processes that break down foods for energy. That’s why eating nutrient-dense foods is so important for thriving health.

    While popular discussion around calories often mistakenly bears language of “good” and “bad”, a truer understanding of calories is that they are simply a unit of measurement of the amount of total energy potential from foods.

    Of course, how much calories (energy) is available to cells at a given time is an important factor to keep in mind for optimal health.

    How are energy levels influenced by food?

    Sustained energy levels throughout the day depend largely on blood sugar balance. If you eat balanced meals with the right combination of foods that provide sustained release energy and enough energy overall, you can stay energized for several hours at a time, without having to reach for another coffee or snack. We’ll discuss the importance of maintaining blood sugar balance further in this article.

    Carbohydrates for quick energy

    Carbohydrates generally provide a quick source of energy in the body. The carb component of foods includes sugars and starches as well as non-digestible fibers.

    The role of carbohydrates for energy production

    During digestion, the body uses enzymes such as amylase to break down starches and sugars into simple sugars, mainly glucose. Glucose then enters the bloodstream at which point it is called “blood sugar.”

    In response to increased blood sugar, the body produces insulin to help move that sugar into the cells of the body to either be converted into quick energy or stored for later use. When the body receives more blood sugar than it needs in the moment, it can store that sugar either as glycogen or as body fat. Glycogen can then be used during times of activity to supply a steady amount of glucose for energy. When glycogen stores are filled up, excess blood sugar can be converted into body fat.

    Glycemic index

    The glycemic index (GI) is a rating system for foods containing carbohydrates. It shows how quickly each food affects your blood sugar level when that food is eaten on its own. For example, sugar is ranked around 100, while an apple is ranked around 36.

    Different types of carbohydrate produce different levels of energy

    While carbohydrate containing foods can be part of a healthy diet, it’s the refined carbohydrate foods that can create a problem. Examples of refined carb foods are those made from refined flours like white bread and pretzels as well as sugary foods and drinks like cookies and soda. With the natural fibers removed during the refining process, these foods can spike blood sugar. High blood sugar can lead to energy crashes and even weight gain.

    Carbohydrate-rich foods with lower glycemic indexes generally contain more complex carbs and fiber, which slow down the rise in blood sugar when digesting the food. Protein and healthy fat in food can also help keep blood sugar levels in check that are already in a normal range.

    A helpful tip is to choose whole or minimally processed carb foods that naturally contain fiber and to pair these foods with a source of protein and fat. For example, instead of having your morning oatmeal alone, pair it with Greek yogurt and peanut butter for a protein, fat and fiber-fueled breakfast that can support more steady blood sugar levels until the next meal or snack.

    Examples of carbohydrates for energy production

    Examples of minimally processed carbohydrate-rich foods include:

    • Fruit
    • Whole grains
    • Root vegetables
    • Legumes, like chickpeas and black beans

    All plant-based foods contain some amount of carbohydrates, but the ones listed above contain a comparatively larger amount of carbohydrates than other plant-based foods, including non-starchy vegetables like broccoli and spinach, avocados, and nuts and seeds. Milk and milk-based products are one animal-based product that also contains carbs as the sugar lactose.

    Protein for long term energy

    Protein is made up of amino acids and functions in the body in a number of roles, including structural support, enzymes that catalyze biochemical reactions, hormones, and hemoglobin for carrying oxygen in the blood. Amino acids even provide the building blocks for producing neurotransmitters, and inadequate protein intake can lead to decreased levels of neurotransmitters.

    The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of protein is at least 0.8-1g/kilogram of body weight per day. However, an RDA is defined as the amount of a nutrient you need to meet your most basic nutritional requirements. Many experts argue that a more optimal intake may be up to 1.2-1.5 g/kg of body weight in order to maintain lean body mass and other functions of a thriving metabolism, especially for those who are more active as well as in older adults.

    The role of protein for energy production

    Protein is not the preferred major fuel source for two major reasons:

    • Protein requires more energy to be metabolized than do carbs and fats, so they are not an efficient way to provide energy.
    • A multitude of other reactions in the body require protein, so the body prefers to reserve protein for use in those reactions while relying on other fuel sources for energy.

    As stated before, protein can also support balanced blood sugar levels when eating carbohydrates.

    Examples of protein for energy production

    Animal sources of protein contain all essential amino acids in the amounts the human body needs, while plant sources of protein are usually lacking in a few amino acids (with the exception of soy, quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth) and should be combined with other plant proteins or animal proteins in order to get the right amino acids.

    Animal-based protein foods with additional nutrients for healthy energy levels include:

    • Eggs - rich in choline and vitamin A in the retinol form.
    • Fish - rich in minerals and often omega-3 fats, particularly in fish such as salmon, sardines, and cod.
    • Shellfish - oysters in particular are the world’s richest food source of zinc.
    • Meat and poultry - especially pasture-raised or grass-fed varieties for more nutrients.
    • Greek yogurt - rich in calcium and vitamin A.

    Plant-based protein foods that are rich in nutrients include:

    • Soybeans - one of the highest sources of plant-based protein and rich in phytochemicals
    • Beans and legumes - rich in folate, iron, and potassium
    • Nuts and seeds - rich in B vitamins and minerals. Pumpkin seeds and pistachios have some of the highest amounts of protein among them.
    • Whole grains - ones with the most protein include oats, quinoa, barley, farro, and wheat, and are rich in B vitamins.

    Fats for sustained energy

    Fats play a critical role in the body as a component of cell membranes, transport molecules, hormone production, and insulation and protection for body organs. Fats, also called lipids, are found in oils, meats, dairy, and plants and consumed mostly in the form of triglycerides.

    The role of fats for energy production

    Fats are the slowest of the macronutrients to digest but provide the most efficient form of energy. Fats provide 9 calories per gram, which is over two times more than the 4 calories per gram of carbs and proteins. While some excess energy can be stored as glycogen, most of it is stored as body fat due to the caloric density of fats.

    Fats also help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, which are necessary for a healthy metabolism.

    Different types of fats produce different levels of energy

    Some fats are made in the body while others are required from food and are called essential fatty acids. The two types of essential fatty acids are omega-3 (such as EPA and DHA) and omega-6 fats. These essential fatty acids are types of PUFAs, or polyunsaturated fatty acids.

    Other types of fats include MUFAs (monounsaturated fats), saturated fats, and trans fats. While industrially produced trans fats have negative effects on health, others are naturally occuring, such as CLA (conjugated linoleic acid)%20and%20positional%20locations. "CLA (conjugated linoleic acid)") found in small amounts in dairy and meats and has been shown to have health benefits.

    Examples of fats for energy production

    Foods high in fat that contain additional supportive nutrients include:

    • Fatty fish - such as salmon, sardines, and cod that are rich in omega-3 fats.
    • Avocados - rich in folate and other B vitamins, potassium, and vitamin E.
    • Olive oil - rich in MUFAs and antioxidants like vitamin E.
    • Nuts and seeds - rich in B vitamins and minerals.

    Vitamins and minerals relationship to energy levels

    Vitamins and minerals themselves do not provide any energy but rather are essential in the process of converting macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins) into fuel for energy. You can think of carbs, proteins, and fats as logs that burn for a fire, whereas vitamins and minerals are like the firestarter to get the flames going.

    Multivitamin supplements that contain vitamins and minerals can help bridge the gaps of a diet that does not get enough nutrients overall.

    A good multivitamin like Care/of’s Multivitamin can help you get the nutrients you might be lacking without adding too much of what you likely do get from what you eat.

    Healthy foods that produce high levels of energy

    Overall, eating a balance of protein, fats, and carbs from minimally processed foods can give you the best chance of supporting healthy metabolism and energy levels.

    You can follow this simple strategy of nutrition for great energy:

    1. Aim for macronutrient balance in order to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Get enough protein at every meal, add healthy fats, and choose unrefined carb foods.
    2. If eating carbs, try to always pair with a source of protein to stabilize blood sugar.
    3. Eat nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods in order to get enough vitamins and minerals to keep your metabolism working well.

    Some of the most nutrient-dense foods that you can incorporate into your diet include:

    • Salmon
    • Blueberries
    • Eggs
    • Kale
    • Shellfish
    • Liver (caution when pregnant due to high vitamin A content)
    • Dairy

    Other tips to keep energy levels sustained throughout the day

    While good nutrition plays a huge role in sustaining energy levels, we can’t forget about lifestyle behaviors that impact energy.

    Aim for adequate sleep, which includes:

    • Getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
    • Reducing light exposure at least 2 hours before bedtime - this makes it easier for your body to produce melatonin and fall asleep.
    • Finishing eating at least 2 hours before bedtime, if appropriate - this allows for more digestion to take place while awake instead of during sleep which can disturb sleep patterns.

    Exercise regularly.

    • Exercise can come in many forms, like walking, strength training, yoga, dancing, and more. Find what works for you and aim to get at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week.
    • Regular exercise can actually support sustained energy levels through improving cellular respiration and blood sugar levels already within a healthy range.

    Manage stress.

    • Stress can create fluctuations in hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine, which can provoke surges of energy at the start but lead to crashes of energy later when stress becomes chronic.
    • The stress response also uses up more nutrients like magnesium which is required for many aspects of energy metabolism.

    Final takeaways

    Eating nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods and making sure you eat a balance of protein, carbs, and fats throughout the day can support steady energy levels.

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    Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
    Medical Content Manager
    Dr. Montrond-Correia is a licensed naturopathic physician and a certified nutrition specialist (CNS). She holds degrees from University of Bridgeport, Georgetown University, and University of Saint Joseph, and supplemented her education with internships in the health and wellness space. She's focused on research, herbal medicine, nutrigenomics, and integrative and functional medicine. She makes time for exercise, artistic activities, and enjoying delicious food.
    Victoria Peck-Gray, RD
    Freelance Contributor
    Victoria is a registered dietitian and functional nutritionist who helps people with resistant weight loss and PCOS transform their metabolic health and lose weight through a functional nutrition and lifestyle approach that addresses root causes. She is owner of her private practice, Wonderfully Made Nutrition and also leads her group metabolic coaching program for women called The 4 Method.