Food & Nutrition

Solving My Own Energy Crisis: Better Diet and Sleep Strategies

By Julie Upton, RD

Lost: Julie’s get-up-and-go
Got up and left the house on October 10, 2008
Reward for safe return

My get-up-and-go has escaped, and I’m doing all I can to get it back. I’m smart enough to know that I can’t rely on quick fixes like drinks or pills. To solve my own energy crisis, I’ve got to drill-baby-drill down the basics: better food and more sleep.

I’ve been so busy these past two weeks, I feel like I could crawl into bed and hibernate for a week. I know when my energy drain started: I did a marathon in the Sierras last weekend, and I had to travel before and after the race. Talk about a complicated training schedule—and a tough recovery too. I’ve been skimping on sleep, jetting across time zones, slacking on nutrition, and subjecting my body to all sorts of physical extremes.

Now, I’m en route to New York and then to Chicago for some nutrition conferences. To try to eke more energy out of my weary body, I’ve decided that I’m going to serve as my own research project to see if what I eat really does impact how energized I feel. Here are the terms of my experiment.

Eat every three to four hours—period
The busier I get, the longer I go between real meals; even snacks go by the wayside, as empty Diet Coke cans stack up by my computer instead. When lunch doesn’t roll around until 2 p.m., that’s a problem. I’ve decided regardless of how many deadlines I’m under, I am eating breakfast when I wake up, a snack at 10 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m., an afternoon snack around 3, and dinner around 6 or 7 p.m. While research is sketchy about whether eating smaller, more frequent meals is better for energy levels, I know that, personally, it keeps me from binging on junk food just because I’m ravenous. (Get five energy-boosting snack ideas.)

Stop overeating
When you overeat, you feel lethargic. It’s no wonder that after holiday dinners, most of us just want to roll to the couch for a nap. This is a vicious cycle that I find many overweight people suffer from: They overeat, it zaps their energy levels, and so they exercise less and get heavier. A dietitian colleague says it’s “like a snowball rolling downhill that just keeps getting bigger as it rolls.” So by eating small meals and snacks, as detailed in my first point, I’m hoping to avoid this unfortunate side effect as well.

Drink the right drinks
Being dehydrated can slow your metabolism, so I’m going to start keeping water in my fridge at all times. I’m still not crazy about plain water, so I’m adding mint and lemon to boost its drinkability. I was also running to Starbucks on a daily basis for a tall Skinny Latte boost, but I realized that I quickly adapted to the increased caffeine and it was no longer giving me a lift. So it’s out with the added sugar and caffeine; experts agree that they’re terrible substitutes for sleep, anyway. I’m also giving up alcohol, which is a depressant and can make us quick to fall asleep. But booze also interferes with our deep, restorative sleep waves later in the night (see why in this video), so even if it knocks me out before bed, I still won’t feel much better in the morning.

Limit sugars
While there aren’t studies that actually show that simple sugars zap our energy levels, I think it’s prudent to get most of your carbohydrates from the slower-burning complex carbs, like whole-grain oats, brown rice, whole-wheat pastas, and breads. We do know that sugars cause our blood-sugar levels to increase more quickly—and then drop precipitously afterward. The more we can even out our blood sugar highs and lows, the less we’re at risk for an energy crash.

Sleep more instead of eat more
Instead of burning the candle at both ends and using food and beverages to help keep me awake and energized, I’ve started taking a novel approach and, yep, sleeping more. This has taken a bit of rearranging in my schedule: I politely decline work dinners and receptions and say that I’m on a deadline that needs to be completed the next day. I know it’s a bit antisocial, but really, no one seems to mind; I think they want to go to bed too!

If you’re having trouble sleeping, try cutting back on caffeine after lunch and avoiding eating too much—especially spicy or hard-to-digest food—close to bedtime. If that doesn’t work, talk to your doctor about trying sleep hygiene tricks or short-term medication. Studies show that people who are sleep deprived are at a higher risk of obesity, and that their bodies actually create more of the hormone that makes you hungry and less of the one that makes you feel full! So I’m also looking at it as an investment in my waistline—plus, I know it’s the best way to get me out of this energy deficit, rather than dig a deeper hole.

(PHOTO: 123RF)

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