We’ve all been there: You have an insanely productive morning, breeze through a third of your to-do list before noon, and take a load off at lunch. But then 3:00 o’clock hits, and you feel your energy slipping—hard.
Unfortunately, that midday slump isn’t the only time you might feel your energy waning. Many of us trudge through much of the day feeling like we’ve got rocks in our shoes. What gives?
You’ve probably heard the saying ‘food is fuel’—and it’s very true. When you don’t get enough of the right nutrients, your body can’t keep humming along at its best. Below are six nutrients you shouldn’t skimp on, and how to avoid that midday slump.
“Carbs are the body’s primary source of fuel, like gasoline to a car,” says Lisa Moskovitz, R.D., C.D.N. Our bodies convert carbs into glucose (a type of sugar), which it depends on in order to function properly. We use glucose to perform both voluntary actions, like walking up the stairs or sprinting on the treadmill, and involuntary actions, like breathing and pumping blood.
What happens when carbs run short: Most of us eat enough carbs, but recent diet trends like Paleo and keto have made slashing carbs trendy. When you don’t eat enough carbs, not only do your energy levels dip, but you might also experience issues like headaches, muscle cramps, and constipation.
Where to get them: According to The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, carbs (the right kinds!) should make up 45 to 65 percent of our daily calories. Instead of white or refined carbs, go for whole foods like quinoa, oats, brown or wild rice, says Moskovitz.
Add fresh fruits to smoothies and protein shakes or snack on them when your midday slump hits. The USDA recommends filling a quarter of your plate at meals with each whole grains, fruits, and vegetables—all of which provide wholesome carbs.
Eating ample fat, which is more calorie-dense than carbs and protein, helps you meet your daily calorie needs. Plus, it also promotes stable blood sugar levels, which helps you avoid any midday energy crashes, explains Georgie Fear, R.D., C.S.S.D., author of Lean Habits For Lifelong Weight Loss.
The downside of being low-fat: Without ample fat in your diet, your energy levels shoot up and down, you feel hungrier faster, and you might have trouble concentrating.
Where to get it: Most adults should eat at least 20 percent of their daily calories from fat (with less than 10 percent of them coming from saturated fat.) According to the American Heart Association, the majority of your intake should come from unsaturated fats, which have been shown to support heart health. Good sources of these unsaturated fats include olive oil, avocados, nut butter, nuts, and fish like salmon or tuna.
“Most people get more than enough fat, but if you have been stringently avoiding it or cutting calories as low as possible, adding a small amount of fat to each meal could keep you going feeling better fueled than rice cakes,” says Fear. Consider adding a quarter of an avocado to your eggs, a tablespoon of nut butter to your yogurt or oatmeal, and a drizzle of olive oil (about a tablespoon) to your vegetables before roasting them.
Okay, so all carbs will give you some kind of energy boost, but some are more efficient than others. The MVP here: fiber. A type of carb we can’t digest, fiber regulates our blood sugar and appetite, in addition to supporting digestive and heart health.
What low-fiber living looks like: While whole, fiber-filled foods keep us feeling satisfied and steady for hours, refined foods that have been stripped of fiber (like white pasta or cookies) spike our blood sugar and give us a rush of energy, which is followed by a crash as our body fires into overdrive to get our blood sugar under control, explains Moskovitz. When you fall short on fiber, you may experience all-over-the-place energy levels, along with digestive issues like constipation.
Where to get it: Men should eat 38 grams of fiber per day, while women should aim for 25 grams. In addition to whole grains, fruit, and vegetables, you can also load up on fiber by eating lentils, black beans, chickpeas, and almonds.
Make sure you’re eating enough by filling at least half your plate with fruits and vegetables at every meal, says Moskovitz. (If you don’t quite meet the mark, a fiber supplement—like Miracle Fiber®, which provides five grams—can help you get there.)
The mineral magnesium supports your body’s production of ATP, the chemical form of energy it needs to keep your heart, muscles, and kidneys performing at their best, as well as helping our muscles and blood vessels relax. It also supports the production of feel-good chemicals like serotonin and interacts with certain receptors to help us get the rest we need, says Fear.
What happens when you’re low on magnesium: “Magnesium doesn’t directly make a person feel energetic, but a deficiency can certainly lead to feeling less than your best,” says Fear. People who are deficient in magnesium may experience low mood, restlessness, trouble sleeping, and muscle spasms.
Where to get it: Women and men need 320 and 420 milligrams of magnesium per day, respectively, but people who exercise frequently or take diuretic medications may need a little more.
“Spinach, nuts, and whole grains are all pretty good sources,” says Fear. Some of your highest-magnesium options are almonds, peanuts, cashews, spinach, black beans, and edamame. You can load up on magnesium from your very first meal of the day by making a smoothie with yogurt, kale or spinach, berries, almonds, and pumpkin seeds, suggests Fear. From there, consider munching on roasted pumpkin seeds or sprinkling them on yogurt, or adding spinach or kale to soups and sauces.
If you don’t eat a lot of magnesium-rich foods or have special needs, a magnesium supplement in the evening can promote quality rest and set you up for a more energized day, Fear says. (We love mixing The Vitamin Shoppe’s raspberry lemon calm magnesium powder into a glass of water after dinner.)
5. B Vitamins
All B vitamins support your metabolism and work to convert the food you eat into glucose, in addition to supporting mental and immune health.
When you don’t get enough B’s: Lacking certain B vitamins can cause issues like fatigue, low mood, and nerve problems (like tingling), depending on which you’re short on. B12 deficiency, for example, can even cause nerve damage.
Where to get them: The best sources of B vitamins are animal products like chicken, beef, eggs, and dairy, but you can find them in legumes, nuts, fortified cereals, and soy milk, too, says Moskovitz.
To get your fill of the B’s, snack on nuts or seeds and incorporate lean protein into your meals. If you don’t eat meat (or at least don’t eat it often), you may have a harder time meeting your vitamin B needs. Since we need different amounts of each B vitamin, Fear recommends taking a multivitamin that contains close to 100 percent of the daily recommended amount of each. This way, you have a little help meeting your needs for each, regardless of your diet. (Plnt’s men’s and women’s whole-food multivitamins are our go-to’s.)
Non-meat-eaters may have an especially hard time getting enough of one B vitamin in particular: B12, which is important for a healthy nervous system and ability to break down fat. If you’re concerned about your B12 levels, talk to your doc about adding a supplement to your routine. (We like The Vitamin Shoppe’s black cherry B12 lozenges.)
“Iron is crucial for the formation of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that helps transport oxygen throughout the body,” says Fear. The mineral also helps produce that chemical energy, ATP, we talked about earlier.
What low iron feels like: If you’re short on iron, you may feel fatigued, breathless on exertion, and even unusually cold, says Fear.
Men need just eight milligrams of iron a day, while women need 18. Iron can have negative health effects when consumed in excess of our needs, so Fear recommends trying to get enough through food before you reach for a supplement. If you’re going to buy cereal, make sure it’s fortified, and add vitamin C-packed strawberries—which boost iron absorption—to your bowl.
Or, start the day with a few scrambled eggs, topped with slices of tomatoes (which are full of C). Just keep in mind that since animal-based iron is more bioavailable, plant-based eaters may need to eat a little more iron than their meat-eating counterparts. (Many supplements, like Garden of Life’s Vitamin Code Raw Iron, also contains vitamin C to boost absorption.)
If you’re concerned about low iron levels (which is much more common in women), talk to your doc about whether a supplement is right for you.