By Sayuri Barritt, RD, 8/31/22
Have you felt decreased energy after hitting 40? Are you experiencing more frequent tiredness and chronic fatigue, and it is affecting your ability to feel motivated and productive?
If so, you are not alone. This is a natural part of aging due to the body's decreased ability to produce energy.
There are many factors that influence energy levels, including:
Inadequate calorie and nutrient intake
Increased physical stress and emotional exhaustion
A sedentary lifestyle
Insufficient sleep and rest
Aging (especially after 40 due to hormonal changes)
Health conditions such as viral infections, anemia, and autoimmune diseases
The good news is that energy levels can be improved most of the time through dietary and lifestyle modifications.
How can you increase your energy, motivation, and productivity through a diet? In this article, I will explain how.
Our bodies require nutrients, especially carbohydrates, to produce energy for vital physical functions. Thanks to our cell's powerhouse, the mitochondria, the cells are capable of constantly producing energy in the form of ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) through complex biochemical processes using the nutrients and oxygen we consume. You can think of ATP as energy currency that cells need to perform essential functions such as hormone production, DNA/RNA synthesis, and muscle building and contraction, just to name a few. The reason our lives are sustained is because the mitochondria are constantly making ATP for our cells.
Every cell, except red blood cells, contains mitochondria. Mitochondria are especially abundant in muscle cells, such as the heart's, due to the muscle cells' need to meet physical demands of contraction.
The majority of ATP (energy currency) is made using carbohydrates and oxygen, through a process called cellular respiration.Mitochondria can also create energy using fatty acids and other materials through beta-oxidation and ketosis in the event of scarce glucose availability in the body. However, this process is slow and inefficient, therefore mitochondria prefer carbohydrates as a main fuel source.
There are key nutrients that mitochondria need to produce a steady stream of energy, which in turn boost your vitality and energy levels. These nutrients include:
Glucose (from carbohydrates) - mitochondria's preferred energy source
B vitamins, especially riboflavin and niacin - make energy-producing processes efficient and effective
Magnesium - helps maintain energy supply in cells, especially muscles
CoQ 10 - helps facilitate the final step of energy synthesis and acts as an antioxidant for mitochondria
Iron - a part of hemoglobin in the red blood cells transporting oxygen to mitochondria in muscle cells and other tissues for energy production
In essence, nourishing the body with these energy-boosting nutrients is the first step in restoring your energy levels. In addition to consuming these energy-boosting nutrients, positive lifestyle changes such as increasing physical activity and getting enough sleep will further amplify your energy level throughout the day. **In addition, consuming antioxidant-rich foods can help reduce inflammation and fatigue.
Here are some practical tips for boosting your energy levels:
Tip #1: Consume a good balance of macronutrients
As mentioned above, it is important to consume adequate amount of carbs for energy, especially before exercise and sports activities. Ideally, you should consume complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain bread, pasta, brown rice, vegetables and fruits. This provides you with a steady flow of glucose to the mitochondria without experiencing a blood sugar rollercoaster and energy crash.
You need extra carbohydrates for long-distance activities, including marathons and cycling. Simple carbohydrates such as white bread, rice, and potatoes may help you with these activities as they will be a readily available fuel source for the mitochondria to produce energy quickly. Post-workout meals/snacks are also important in reducing post-workout fatigue and muscle soreness. Meals that consist of glucose and protein in a ratio of 3 to 1 can promote muscle glycogen replenishment, muscle repair, and tissue growth.
Note: here are some foods to avoid before exercise since they can cause GI symptoms such as bloating, gas and abdominal pain during exercise. Foods to avoid before exercise include:
Fiber-rich carbs - fiber-rich cereals, fibrous vegetables, and beans
Fatty foods - French fries, red meat, gravy, and whole-fat dairy
Processed foods - sugary desserts, processed meat, and other boxed foods
Tip #2: Don't forget to eat B vitamins and iron rich foods
Mitochondria can't produce energy efficiently without B vitamins, especially riboflavin and niacin. These water-soluble vitamins are easily depleted, especially if you are vegan/vegetarian, are stressed, excessively consume alcohol, take medications, or have GI conditions such as IBD. If you are extremely fatigued, it is important to consume these nutrients from food sources as well as supplements. What foods are high in B vitamins and iron? Think of animal-based foods - lean meats or organs, poultry, eggs, and dairy. If you practice a plant-based diet, I highly recommend consuming nutritional yeast, fortified cereals, or supplements, as plant foods lack B vitamins, especially vitamin B12.
Iron is another key nutrient that is essential for boosting energy. Red blood cells containing hemoglobin require iron to transport oxygen to the mitochondria for energy synthesis. Ergo, optimizing iron intake through food sources is paramount to improving your energy level. Iron from animal based foods, called heme iron, such as red meat, poultry, and seafood is more absorbable than the non-heme iron, which is high in plant foods including legumes and fortified cereals. It is recommended to consume animal-based and plant-based iron with vitamin C rich foods since vitamin C enhances iron absorption.
Tip #3: Try gentle, aerobic exercises
Your body requires oxygen for a reason. The mitochondria in your cells use oxygen at the end of the energy synthesis process. The more oxygen you inhale during aerobic exercise, the more efficiently energy is produced. This is one of the reasons why you feel "energized" after an aerobic activity such as walking and light jogging.
Note: it is also important to incorporate anaerobic exercises such as weight training to increase your muscle mass (especially after age 40) and to further increase your metabolism. The USDA guidelines recommend a minimum of 150-300 minutes of moderately-intense exercise per week for optimal health.
In conclusion, it is important to feed the mitochondria, our energy powerhouse, with proper nutrients, particularly carbohydrates, B vitamins, and iron. By eating a variety of foods each day, it can help ensure you consume these nutrients, so you feel energized throughout the day. In addition, aerobic exercise provides ample oxygen to power the mitochondria, which will enable you to stay productive and motivated.
Here are some examples of energy-boosting meals that you can try:
1/2 medium whole wheat pita bread
3 small falafel balls
1 tbsp Tzatziki sauce
1 tbsp hummus
1 cup sunny lettuce
1/2 cup tomatoes
1 tbsp chopped mint leaves
1/2 cup fruit
Brown rice bowl with shrimp
1/2 cup cooked brown rice
1 cup stir-fry carrots, bock choy, red onion, and yellow squash
4-5 large prawns
1-2 tbsp Thai peanut sauce
Chicken pasta with vegan cheese sauce
1/2 cup cooked whole wheat pasta
4 oz cooked chicken breast
1 cup chopped broccoli, onion, tomatoes and other veggies
1/2 cup vegan cheese sauce made with nutritional yeast
Ground bison burger
1 small whole wheat bun
3 oz ground bison burger patty
1 slice of Havarti cheese
3 sunny lettuce leaves
1 to 2 slices of tomato
1/2 of an avocado sliced
Miso salmon with buckwheat noodle
1/2 cup of cooked buckwheat noodles
1 tbsp sesame seed oil
4 oz of miso-marinated salmon
1/2 cup chopped broccoli