14 science-backed foods to boost your energy levels

Tired of feeling tired? Learn how to combat low energy with a balanced diet.

We often look for the latest product that promises to give us the surge of energy we depend on to get us through our day. Busy schedules, stress levels, lack of exercise or sleep, and nutritional habits greatly affect our vitality. Especially when we feel lethargic and sluggish, it’s tempting to reach for an energy drink. But there are better ways to keep the motor running and nourish your body for long-term health.

One solution is to fuel your body with the nutrients it needs to stay energized throughout the day. Read on to learn more about how nutrition impacts your energy levels, science-based foods to shake off fatigue, and vitamins to boost your vitality.

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How does food affect my energy levels?

It’s no secret that your body needs proper energy to function correctly. Food is the main source for your energy tank because it has nutrients with unique functions that allow your body to generate power. Three macronutrients comprise the foods we enjoy each day – carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Micronutrients are contained in food but in smaller amounts, and they, too, help sustain the day-to-day energy processes of our bodies.

Carbohydrates 

Your body breaks carbohydrates into glucose, your body’s primary energy source. The two types of carbohydrates are simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are easy to digest, but cause quick drops in energy. Fruits, dairy products, honey, and candy contain are all high in simple carbohydrates. 

Complex carbohydrates also raise your energy levels, but they take longer to digest because of their complexity. Taking more time to digest is good because a slower rise in your blood sugar allows energy to release more gradually. Beans, oats, and vegetables are foods that contain complex carbohydrates, which overall do a better job of maintaining your energy levels. 

Protein

Protein helps sustain your energy levels by keeping your blood sugar levels from spiking too quickly, allowing them to remain stable. Protein comes from meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, nuts, seeds, and legumes. The muscle-building nutrient helps to keep you full for longer, which allows you to power through your day. Combining carbohydrate food with protein can help lessen the rise in blood sugar. For example, if you eat a small blueberry muffin alone, your blood sugars can rise quickly since the muffin is a significant source of carbohydrates. If you enjoy your small blueberry muffin with two hard-boiled eggs, the protein in the eggs among other macronutrients can help curb that rapid rise in your blood sugars. 

Fat

Fats are the third major component of foods and another energy source.  Saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, and polyunsaturated fatty acids are types of fat. Fats are found in animal products, plant products, and packaged goods. 

Like protein, fats help slow the rise of blood sugars after you’ve eaten a meal. For example, if you eat a piece of toast, your blood sugars will spike more quickly than if you eat a piece of toast with a spread of peanut butter, a source of healthy fat. 

Vitamins and minerals

Vitamins and minerals are typically found in various foods and have a long list of functions that benefit your health. In combination, these micronutrients work with macronutrients to ensure your body has a constant energy supply. B vitamins, iron, and magnesium all play essential roles in energy production, and deficiencies in these nutrients can thwart proper functioning.

Top 14 high-energy foods list

Here’s a list of 14 scientifically proven foods for more energy to stash in your kitchen.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

1. Green peas are protein and fiber packed for sustained energy

Green peas are a semi-sweet starchy vegetable with loads of nutrition. They contain energy-sustaining nutrients such as complex carbohydrates and protein. Green peas are a low-glycemic index food, meaning they impact your blood sugars in more minor ways than other foods. Research states low glycemic foods help regulate blood sugar levels, which can help sustain your energy.   In addition, green peas are rich in thiamin, also known as vitamin B1. Thiamin is an essential nutrient that helps to break down other nutrients used for energy. A half cup of green peas has four grams of protein and 17% of your daily value of thiamin.

Green peas make an excellent salad topping or a colorful addition to soups and stews.

2. Almonds are rich in protein and fatigue-fighting nutrients 

Almonds are a convenient energy-boosting snack with a long shelf life. They’re full of protein, healthy fat, and riboflavin among many other great micronutrients, all essential for helping to avoid fatigue. In particular, riboflavin plays a unique role in helping to turn food into energy. One-quarter cup of almonds has seven grams of protein and 37% of your daily value of riboflavin, making it a filling and healthy snack. 

3. Lean ground beef is a good source of B12 and protein

Beef is a significant source of essential amino acids your body must get through your diet. Amino acids are the basic building blocks of protein your body uses to make energy. 

Studies show that foods containing all the essential amino acids do a better job of leaving you satisfied after eating than foods with fewer amino acids. Post-meal satiety is good to ward off hunger and keep your energy levels up. In addition, beef is jam-packed with vitamin B12, which may boost energy in those who are deficient. ​​In three ounces of lean ground beef, you’ll find 75% of your daily value of B12 and 17 grams of protein. 

 Add lean ground beef to soups, stews, casseroles, and taco salads. 

4. Chickpeas are natural sources of complex carbohydrates and vitamin B6

Chickpeas are small beans that are mighty in energy. They’re a source of fiber, protein, complex carbohydrates, and vitamin B6 (among many other important nutrients), which helps your body fuel up. One-half cup of chickpeas contains 9% of your daily value of vitamin B6 and seven grams of protein 

A 2021 review of studies also determined that eating beans may help improve blood sugar control, which can positively affect vitality.

If you’re ready to try chickpeas as a natural energy sustainer, you can add them to curries, soups, salads, or smoothies. 

5. Sweet potatoes are a natural source of complex carbohydrates and biotin

The vibrant-colored starchy vegetable is loaded with nutrition to help keep you fueled. Not only are sweet potatoes full of energy-sustaining complex carbohydrates, but they also include other energy nutrients, including biotin.  Biotin is a vitamin and friend to energy production in your body, and sweet potatoes have 8% of your daily value of biotin in a ½ cup serving, as well as 20 grams of carbohydrates. 

Research tells us that sweet potatoes have antioxidants responsible for their rich pigment. Antioxidants may help with energy production by helping to make glucose, your body’s primary energy source.

Pair sweet potatoes with eggs for an energy-powered morning meal 

6. Eggs contain protein and energy maintaining vitamin B12

Preventing low energy levels means getting good nutrition and avoiding vitamin deficiencies. Vitamin B12 is linked to weakness and fatigue, common signs of reduced energy levels. Eggs are one of the top sources of vitamin B12 and have 16% of your daily value in just one medium egg. A medium egg also offers five grams of satisfying protein. 

Scramble a medium egg in a sauté pan with cauliflower rice, or enjoy it over a slice of wheat toast to help keep your energy lifted 

7. Grapefruit is loaded with antioxidant-rich vitamin C

Grapefruit is an antioxidant-rich juicy fruit chock-full of vitamin C, which plays a significant role in your body’s energy production and maintaining a healthy immune system. Keep your energy levels up with one cup of grapefruit, which provides 80% of your daily needs for vitamin C 

2022 study of 214 adults found that those supplemented with vitamin C experienced increased attention and improved fatigue compared to those receiving a placebo.   

8. Lentils are rich in iron and protein to keep you awake 

Lentils are tiny legumes that come in several colors. They’re an ideal food for keeping up your energy and vitality because of their complex carbohydrates and iron content.  Iron carries oxygen to your brain and muscles to keep you focused, awake, and alert, so avoiding deficiency is important. One-half cup of lentils has 35% of your daily value of iron. 

A 2018 review of 18 studies found an association between iron supplementation and lower reports of fatigue in iron-deficient adults. 

Opt for lentils in your diet by cooking lentils in chili, soup, curry, or taco filling.

9. Oats have fiber fuel and magnesium 

Oats are whole grain and a primary source of complex carbohydrates, including fiber, a nutrient vital for digestive health and helps stabilize your blood sugar levels. Fiber is fermented by gut bacteria, producing short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). SCFA are used as energy. 

Furthermore, oats contain magnesium, a significant mineral deeply involved in helping your body produce energy. Every energy molecule in your body binds itself to magnesium. A half cup of oats offers 16% of your daily value of magnesium. 

A 2021 study of 207 adults tested the effects of an oat fiber called beta-glucan on fatigue. Compared to the 103 people in the control group, the 104 receiving oat beta-glucan reported less severe and less common fatigue after four weeks, though the results were not statistically significant. Oat beta-glucan also improved exercise in a study of rats, suggesting that it had anti-fatigue effects. 

To enjoy more oats, blend them into a yogurt smoothie or bake them into whole grain muffins for a quick energy-boosting snack. 

10. Blueberries help fight inflammation to fend off fatigue

Blueberries contain anthocyanins, which are antioxidants that give blueberries their deep, dark color. Eating blueberries may help sustain your energy levels because they are packed with good quality carbs and because anthocyanins help fight inflammation

A study of adult women found that anthocyanins lowered inflammation markers such as  C-reactive protein (CRP). Your liver produces CRP in high levels during inflammation. 

Add frozen blueberries to your smoothie or top a fresh green salad with raw blueberries. 

11. Salmon to boost your omega-3s

The pink fatty fish is a popular source of heart-healthy omega-3-fats. Salmon makes the high-energy list because not only are omega-3-fats an actual source of energy, but also they help reduce inflammation, and in the absence of inflammation, there’s a better chance you’ll feel less fatigue. A three-ounce portion of salmon contains 14% of your daily value of omega-3 fats. 

Enjoy salmon in fish tacos, on top of an arugula salad, or as a main entrée.

12. Matcha green tea to beat oxidative stress

Matcha green tea comes from Japanese tea leaves ground into a fine powder. It’s plentiful in bioactive compounds like catechins, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), caffeine, theanine, and chlorophyll, which act as antioxidants and combat inflammation and oxidative stress.

One study states ECCG may slow the release of glucose into the digestive tract, creating a steady release of energy versus a rapid spike. 

You can mix matcha with water, coffee, or your favorite smoothie recipe without much effort to power up your day.

13. Greek yogurt to get more protein

Greek yogurt is a rich source of energy that can satiate any appetite. That’s because it has 13 grams of protein and 15 grams of carbohydrates in five ounces.

A study of fifteen adult women eating Greek yogurt with 24 grams of protein experienced less hunger and more fullness, showing a satiating effect. High protein foods can thwart hunger and sustain energy for extended periods, compared to lower protein foods. 

Use greek yogurt to make a creamy berry parfait with nuts. 

14. Dark chocolate for your heart and soul

If you needed any more excuses to indulge in dark chocolate, look no further. Dark chocolate is infamous for its heart-healthy benefits, but can it also give you that energy lift you’ve been looking for? 

A 2017 study found that dark chocolate has cocoa polyphenols that release nitric oxide, allowing the widening of blood vessels. When blood vessels can widen, more oxygen and nutrients can flow, potentially allowing for more alertness. 

Biomarkers, fatigue, and energy levels

Here are several biomarkers your doctor can test to determine the reasons behind your fatigue. 

  • Iron: When iron levels are low, oxygen doesn’t get around your body as it should, causing tiredness and weakness.  
  • C-reactive protein (CRP): Testing your blood for CRP lets you and your doctor know about inflammation in your body. Inflammation can cause fatigue because your body burns more energy than normal. 
  • Glucose and hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c):  Checking your glucose and HbA1c levels help determine if there are any problems with how your body turns food into energy.
  • Vitamin B12 and B9: Testing these vitamin levels can help determine issues with low energy.  
  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH): Thyroid Hormones have a major effect on our metabolism. Testing TSH levels help determine if the source of fatigue has to do with an impairment in thyroid function.

The bottom line

Ultimately, no one food is a "miracle" for energy, but eating a balanced combination of protein, fat and healthy natural carbs keeps your energy levels up by providing vitamins and minerals.

  • Fuel up on iron-rich foods like lentils and beef. Iron helps your body make red blood cells and carry oxygen to the cells in your body.
  • Add B vitamins like thiamine and riboflavin to your diet. These vitamins help convert food into fuel for your body, which boosts energy levels.
  • Boost your antioxidant intake by eating foods like berries or nuts to fend off fatigue and free radicals.
  • Keep stable blood sugar levels for optimal energy production by incorporating healthy fats and nutrient-dense foods.