Tips to Keep Energy Levels Up During the Short, Dark Winter Months
- Dec 27, 2021
- Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
I spent hundreds of hours counseling clients about nutrition, and this time of year, clients often complained about feeling sluggish during the day and mid-afternoon after setting the clocks back and gaining more hours of darkness. People wanted to know how to maintain and even increase their energy levels throughout a busy workday.
Between the hours of 2pm and 4pm, your energy levels naturally drop due to the rise and fall of the sun and your hormonal response. These circadian rhythms can make you feel tired and hungry. Here are some food tips to minimize this natural effect and make your day feel more energized!
#1: Never Skip Breakfast
Eating breakfast sets the tone for the whole day. People who eat breakfast report being in a better mood and having more energy. What does an energizing breakfast look like? It's...
- High in protein, about 20-25 grams total (eggs, nut butter, Greek yogurt, tofu, protein powder)
- High in fiber (vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains)
- Contains healthy fat (nut butter, nuts, chia & flax seeds, avocado, olives, ghee, coconut, MCT oil)
Avoid a high carbohydrate and high sugar breakfast because those foods spike your blood sugar level which leaves you feeling sluggish. When blood sugar levels increase, insulin is released to pull the sugar into the muscles, but you need the right amount of insulin or energy levels will be affected, along with other health troubles. Find out how insulin and three other key hormones control the amount of strength and stamina you have during the day. l love these additional ideas for supporting healthy blood sugar levels and reducing insulin spikes.
#2: Timing is Important
Besides what you eat for breakfast, when you eat is just as critical. Skipping breakfast can lead to sluggishness and brain fog and going without fuel may also cause you to overeat at the end of the day because you’re extra hungry. Every morning upon waking, I immediately take one tablespoon of liquid fat (10 grams of fat), straight off the spoon, to maintain my blood sugar level. Fish oil or cod liver oil are my preferences, plus I get a daily boost of essential fatty acids. I highly recommend implementing my oil routine, but nonetheless eat within 30-60 minutes of waking up.
How often you eat depends on the person – I typically say don't wait more than 4 or 5 hours between meals. Why? Skipping meals and waiting too long to eat between meals causes your blood glucose levels to plummet. This plummet can cause a lack of energy, headache, mood changes, light headedness or poor concentration. To deal with the low levels your system starts pumping glucose into your bloodstream, which forces your pancreas to release more insulin. A dangerous cycle has begun at that point. Instead, decrease the amount of food you eat at each meal, and eat every few hours.
Eating often enough also prevents the massive fat storage that comes from feast-or-famine eating. When your blood sugar remains steady throughout the day, and the body trusts there's more where that came from, it happily burns your meal for energy, confident you'll feed it more later.
If you don’t normally eat breakfast, start small. For example, eat an egg for breakfast for a week. The following week add a fruit or string cheese with the egg, and increase from there.
#3: Protein + Fiber = Energizing Snack
Always include a protein or fat at your snack. That energy dip you feel mid-afternoon is a drop in your blood sugar levels, and mid-afternoon is an especially critical time to eat something nutritious. I love to eat an apple with any type of nut butter, plain Greek yogurt with blueberries, or a handful of almonds with a piece of fruit. These are excellent choices because the combo of protein, fiber, and healthy fat is really effective at satisfying your appetite while keeping your blood sugar levels stable.
#4: Head Off Those Carb Cravings
Declining daylight can lead to a dip in serotonin levels and that can trigger carb cravings. Eating starchy foods like bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, cereal, crackers and all those other carb-rich foods, can cause a boost in serotonin production, but the effects are short lived. The extra calories, however, may translate into a few extra pounds, especially since we tend to get less exercise in the winter.
Also, when you’re eating a sweet food, you get a spike in blood sugar, which gives you an initial burst of energy. But that’s followed by a rapid drop in blood sugar, which in turn will leave you feeling very wiped out.
#5: Drink Green Tea Mid-Afternoon
Green tea contains a powerful amino acid called l-theanine, which increases alpha brain wave activity and induces relaxation. In addition, and the reason I like drinking it mid-afternoon is the l-theanine combines with caffeine in a way that produces relaxed alertness, and the caffeine “oomph” is just the right amount. Plus, sipping on tea helps with hydration, which also increases energy levels.
#6: Hydrate More and Less Alcohol
Don’t forget to drink. In warm weather, I always have a bottle of water on hand and drink a lot throughout the day, but as the weather cools down, I seem to get out of that habit and drink less. Sometimes even slight dehydration can leave you feeling tired and lethargic. Rather than reaching for a cup of coffee first thing in the morning, drink 8-16 ounces of water first. This will ensure you’re hydrated before slurping down a pot of coffee.
I’m not a big partaker in drinking alcohol, never have been, and it certainly helps me keep my energy levels high. If you find yourself fatigued after a good night’s sleep, try cutting down on alcohol during the evening hours. While alcohol initially helps you fall asleep, it also interferes with deep sleep, so you’re not getting the rest you think you are. Cut back the night before and you’re sure to feel more energy the next day.
With 2019 coming to an end, let's cheers to feeling wide awake from dawn to dusk.
In Health and Happiness,
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods