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10 Energy-Depleting Foods to Avoid on Tough Days

10 Energy-Depleting Foods to Avoid on Tough Days

It may be a cliché, but food is fuel. And not all fuel is created equal. In fact, plenty of foods give you a short-lived burst of energy, but then leave you feeling sapped. These are energy-depleting foods to avoid when you most need to keep going at peak performance.

Basically, the principle is to stay away from sugary foods, processed foods, and those with long ingredient lists. The biggest keys to having sustained energy through a taxing day are to minimize your sugar intake and avoid other bad carbs.

Below are 10 foods I recommend skipping to stay energized through a long or strenuous day.

Energy Bars

They may sounds like a great choice, especially when you’re on the go or missed a meal, but no. Energy bars are often heavily processed and contain a good number of artificial ingredients for a long shelf life. Most have added sugar that gives you a quick boost, but then leads to an energy-draining crash in blood glucose levels. They lack the good carbs and accompanying nutrients to help metabolize them well. If you must grab an energy bar, look for one with a short, natural ingredient list made mostly of nuts and fruit and not high in added sugar; alternatively, just grab some whole fruit and nuts instead.

Packaged Juices and Smoothies

Store-bought fruit juices and packaged smoothies, depending on the brand, are made to have long shelf lives. Some aren’t even refrigerated, which automatically tells you a lot. But refrigerated or not, these products usually contain preservatives and other additives to maintain freshness, quality, and taste. Instead, reach for fresh-squeezed juices and fresh whole-made smoothies prepared to order. While they’re a little more pricey, they’re healthier and contain the macro and micronutrients necessary to keep you energized—and they’re even better tasting, too.

Supermarket Yogurt

Supermarket yogurt typically contains lots of extra sugar, and often dyes that most consumers don’t even think about. When we see yogurt, most of us think it’s a good, healthy snack filled with probiotics, calcium, and other vitamins. While this may be true, some brands also pack in extra preservatives that don’t add any nutritional value. Buy unsweetened yogurt with a short ingredient list containing little more than milk and whole fruit, or purchase plain yogurt and add organic nuts and fruit.

Energy Drinks

Energy drinks are so popular because they give a quick jolt of energy. But the high levels of caffeine and/or sugar that provide that quick boost also lead to a significant crash. Often, you feel even worse and more lethargic than you did to begin with. Some manufacturers have even started producing sugar-free energy drinks, and even fortifying them with things like B vitamins, to make them sound good. But it’s still mostly just a high caffeine content delivering a short-lived burst of energy.

Caffeinated Beverages

There’s nothing wrong with having a single cup of coffee. It’s natural and has some health benefits, and it can help get you going and even increase cognitive function and alertness. The problems come in when you start needing second, third, maybe even more cups. A significant quantity of caffeine leads to a crash after the initial jump start. It can also cause dehydration, which triggers fatigue and headaches, as well as other complications in the long term. You can easily become dependent on caffeine, and it may also interfere with sleep, since it remains in the body for eight to 12 hours. Poor sleep is of course not conducive to sustained energy and focus.

Banana Chips

These sound like a healthy choice, but they’re often fried and contain extra sugar providing empty calories and increasing the likelihood of an energy crash. Swap these out for a fresh banana packed with magnesium, potassium, and good carbs.

Low-Fat Foods

It’s a common misconception to think these are a smart choice. But healthy fats are a key source of sustained energy. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, like those found in nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, fish, shellfish, and avocados are necessary for energy; weight control; healthy cells, skin, and hair; and more. Also, because fat provides flavor, low-fat foods usually make up for it with lots of added sugar, which makes them energy-depleting foods to avoid when you need to keep going. They also often have high sodium content and preservatives. Do limit saturated fat in your diet, and don’t eat anything containing trans fats.

Alcohol

Some people turn to alcohol to help deal with a taxing day. But it’s another source of empty calories and bad carbs, ultimately leaving you feeling sluggish and sleepy. And, as discussed with caffeine, it can dehydrate you. It also impedes your liver’s ability to flush out toxins, which may depress your body’s energy production. The adverse effects on the digestive system also work against you.

Refined Grains

Refined grains are bad carbs that lead to a spike and crash in blood sugar levels. Pastas, breads, crackers, and other baked goods made with white flour are common examples, as is white rice. Note that multigrain bread sounds healthy, but it’s often made with white flour. Along with tanking your energy levels, refined grains often make you hungry again shortly after eating. The stress on the body may also trigger increased cortisol (the so-called “stress hormone”) production, tricking your body into think it’s in a stressful situation. You definitely don’t need this on top of an already stressful day.

Packaged Trail Mix

Nuts, seeds, and a little of certain dried fruits are nutritious sources of sustained energy. But most store-bought trail mixes contain a good deal of added salt, sugar, and even fried fruit. Lots of people grab these because they’re convenient and they look and feel healthy. A much better alternative is to make your own version with fresh, unsalted almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, sunflower seeds, flaxseed, or other nuts and seeds, combined with some fresh organic fruit.

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Jason Littleton, MD, also known as America's Energy Doctor, is a board-certified family physician offering concierge healthcare and the author of WellSpring: The Energy Secrets to Do the Good Life. The book's practical, insightful content and his resonant messages about nutrition, fitness, and balance have made Dr. Littleton a highly sought after, high-profile keynote speaker and national media commentator on TV and in print.