Vexing Vocabulary: Exploring Energy

Pittsburgh Dietitian Blog Posts
October 1, 2014

“I feel like I don’t have any energy. What can I eat to give me energy?” This is a quote I hear from new clients on a regular basis in my private practice. Being a Dietitian and self-cited mediator of information, what better way to answer this question then a quick Google search? In 0.28 seconds, Google finds me 24 million results that supposedly answer this seemingly popular issue. Upon further inspection of the information at my fingertips, I find an article on Business Insider: “10 Foods that will give you energy”. Sounds perfect!  Here is an abbreviated list of the cited foods:

  •      Almonds, Dark chocolate, Salmon, Spicy herbs, Greek Yogurt,  Popcorn, Leafy Greens, Whole Grains, Blueberries, Eggs

That is a nice list covering a variety of nutrient dense foods. Is the impact on the body that all of these foods share the fact that they give you energy? Your answer likely depends on how you define energy. For the purpose of this blog, I will group the many possible definitions of energy into 3 main groups.Group one is what I call daily energy. This is the most traditional sense of the word, as it refers to calorie containing foods, aka what our body burns when we expend energy! It is what allows us to do things like think and move (fairly important…). The sources of energy that permit this are carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Water and sleep also fall into this group because without any one of these our body cannot function for extended periods at an optimum level. More specifically, carbohydrates are the most direct form of energy, and the preferred fuel source for our brain and muscles. A small, portioned carbohydrate based snack can do a lot for mental clarity and your short-term energy levels.Group two is what I refer to as enhanced energy. This refers to things that give you a jittery sensation or an elevated sense of vigor through nerve stimulation. The most common example of this is caffeine. Caffeine gives us “energy” by inhibiting a regulatory neurotransmitter that essentially let’s our main source of neural stimulation run free. This is a direct up regulation of our nerves, which gives us a feeling of liveliness many wish to replicate non-stop. There is evidence this temporarily improves performance and concentration, but is generally not sustained for extended periods (hence “enhanced”).Our third group is what I call assisted energy. The assistants are what help our body regulate the pathways of daily and enhanced energy (calories and our nervous & endocrine system). Without this group, our body would not be able to produce actual energy for daily processes. In this sense, they are an indirect source of energy. This becomes important when we reveal what this group consists of. The energy assistants are exercise, vitamins and minerals. Why does this matter? Energy drinks and energy shots, all touting ability to provide lasting energy, and boasting a B-vitamin complex fit for a week of intake are the reason this group makes energy such a vexing word. The main role of B-vitamins in “energy processes” is in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and protein. Our body relies on them to breakdown our true energy.  When you realize the B’s don’t provide direct energy (unless you are deficient and begin consuming it), it becomes obvious that the “more is better” mentality does not make sense. Your body needs a certain amount of each of the B-vitamins to carry out specific processes. Less than that amount, you are not running at max efficiency and will have reduced energy, but consuming excess has no enhancing impact on energy levels.With the definition in place, let’s revisit that list from the business insider again:

  • Almonds: Fats, Protein, Vitamin E, Minerals
  • Dark chocolate: Caffeine (& other Methyxanthine), sugar, fat, phytonutrients
  • Salmon: fat, protein, vitamin E, iron
  • Spicy herbs: phytonutrients, trace vitamins/minerals
  • Greek Yogurt: protein, carbohydrate, minerals
  • Popcorn: carbohydrate
  • Leafy Greens: fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients
  • Whole Grains: carbohydrates, minerals
  • Blueberries: carbohydrates, vitamins, phytonutrients
  • Eggs: protein, fat, vitamins, minerals

Once we break out the main nutrients each food provides, a couple things become obvious. Clearly, there is not a common nutrient or ingredient that ties these foods together. Instead, the energy they provide is a result of a diet that follows the Lifestyle Triad: Balance, Moderation, and Variety.The next time you are feeling fatigued, instead of buying a B-complex at GNC or slinging back a redbull with a triple shot of expresso, try assessing your lifestyle. Chances are one of the following is out of balance. Correct the issue and overcome the problem!

  • Are you sleeping enough? (6-8hrs)
  • Are you eating enough? (calories, fluids)
  • Are you exercising regularly? (150 minutes per week minimum)
  • Are you eating enough of the right foods? (vegetables, grains, proteins, fats)
  • Are you more stressed than normal?

-Andrew Wade, Registered Dietitian

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