Exhausted all the time? Need more energy and vitality? Dietitian Brooke Longfield shows how to fuel your body for peak performance, every day, as you go for gold!
As we follow our Aussie athletes taking off on their Olympic journey, admiring their strength and stamina, we might be wishing that we had their energy. If you’re tired all the time and are lacking in vitality, you’ve come to the right place.
Here’s how to fuel your body to perform at your best, just like an athlete does, each and every day.
Eat a breakfast of champions
An elite athlete wouldn’t think of starting the day on an empty tank, and nor should you! Research shows that a nourishing breakfast improves both mental and physical performance for the entire day.
So, if you often have the brain fuzzies by 10am, try taking just a few minutes to make a healthy breakfast before heading out in the morning.
Tips for you
Start with protein. Swap jam or vegemite on toast for more satisfying choices such as half a cup of plain Greek-style yoghurt on untoasted muesli or a poached egg on wholegrain toast.
No time to sit down? Blitz a banana, berries, oats and plain yoghurt with milk for a fibre-packed smoothie, on-the-go style.
Ditch the quick fixes. It’s easy to grab a muffin with your takeaway coffee, but the sugar and refined carbs will leave you with an energy slump afterwards.
Pump up the iron
Roughly one in three women is iron deficient, which is a condition that can leave you feeling tired and lethargic. It can also mean you’re more likely to get sick. So if you’re feeling run down, it might be worth seeing your doctor to check your iron levels.
Younger women are at higher risk of iron deficiency due to blood loss during menstruation. They also have higher iron needs during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Athletes are at risk of iron deficiency, as they lose iron through sweat.
Bolster your iron stores by eating iron-rich foods, such as lean meat, poultry and fish. Eggs, tofu, legumes and spinach are good vegetarian sources of iron.
Tips for you
Maximise iron absorption. Eat foods high in iron with vitamin C-rich foods as vitamin C helps the body absorb iron. E.g. red meat with vitamin C-rich sweet potato.
Cut the fat. Choose lean cuts of red meat, and trim all visible fat to reduce your saturated fat intake.
Time your caffeine. Tea and coffee decrease the iron your body absorbs, so drink them separate to mealtimes.
Charge up with complex carbs
Remember those ads where athletes sit down to a bowl of 12 Weet-Bix? No, you don’t need to do that, but carbs are important. They are our primary source of fuel. For long-lasting energy, eat carbs that are broken down slowly. These are called ‘complex’ carbs and include high-fibre foods like wholegrain bread, oats, brown rice, lentils and beans, and wholemeal pasta. Include these at every meal.
Tips for you
Measure it out. Use a measuring cup to get it right. A healthy portion of cooked rice or pasta for a moderately active female is about half a cup.
On the pulse. Add more beans and legumes, such as chickpeas and lentils, to your meals. They’re rich in energising fibre and satisfying protein, so you’ll be full of beans!
Go for grains. Choosing the best bread and crackers for long-lasting energy can be tricky, but let your eyes guide you — look for dark, visible grains.
Small, regular meals help keep your blood sugar levels stable, releasing energy gradually. This means no 3pm energy slump!
Athletes are faced with the same challenges as us — their training venue may not have a cafeteria or kitchen facilities, just as our workplaces may not. But rather than relying on vending machines, they bring healthy snacks with them.
Eat within 30 minutes after exercising to prevent an energy slump and to help your body recover. Choose a combination of protein and carbs, such as a fruit and yoghurt smoothie, peanut butter on toast or a couple of crackers with cheese.
Tips for you
Emergency drawer. If you work in an office, it’s easy to stash healthy snacks such as nuts and high-fibre muesli bars in your desk drawer.
Learn portions. Divide your food into individual portions so you don’t overeat at snack time. Pop 30g (about two tablespoons) of nuts into zip-lock bags, and divide large tubs of yoghurt by spooning them into small 1/2-cup containers.
Munch and chew. Crunchy vegie sticks and fresh fruit, like apples, are satisfying choices and require some chewing time. Research shows that chewing more helps you eat less.
Every drop counts
Staying hydrated during exercise is important for an athlete’s performance and health. By contrast, 75 per cent of us mere mortals are chronically dehydrated.
This is a key cause of exhaustion because when we’re dehydrated, our blood thickens and it can’t supply optimum energy to our brain and body, so we feel sluggish and tired. So, it’s important that we drink enough water, about 8–10 cups, throughout the day in order to stay properly hydrated.
While serious athletes use energy drinks to rehydrate themselves, these really aren’t necessary for the average Joe. Unless you’re exercising intensely for more than 2–3 hours at a time, plain water is sufficient to rehydrate with, and it doesn’t have the kilojoules that sugary sports drinks have.
Tips for you
Bottoms up. Keep a water bottle with you at all times. Go for a large one (750ml–1L) and set a goal to top it up 2–3 times a day.
Thirst vs hunger. It’s common to confuse hunger with thirst. So before you reach for a snack, drink a large glass of water and wait 10 minutes to see if you’re truly hungry.
Sweet twist. Don’t like drinking plain water? Add flavour with a twist of lemon, or a few mint sprigs, or sip on a refreshing herbal tea.
Eat, sleep... repeat
One of the secrets behind every champion’s success is a good night’s sleep. Sleep is hugely important for our recovery, both physically and mentally. Studies show that having poor sleep affects the way we make split-second decisions and our concentration, as well as mood.
We also know that a lack of sleep strongly impacts the way we eat the following day, steering us towards high-fat, high-sugar choices which can lead to weight gain. So, to stay on top of your game, aim to get 7–8 hours of sleep every night.
Tips for you
Cut the coffee. Caffeine stays in our system for more than five hours, so avoid afternoon or evening coffees that can leave you feeling buzzed late at night.
Power down. Avoid using electronic devices like laptops, TVs and mobile phones an hour before going to bed as it can make falling asleep harder. Instead, dim the lights and read a book.
Be consistent. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Research shows that this helps avoid daytime sleepiness.
Your 24-hour guide to eating for energy
6.30am Time to move
Drink a big glass of water to rehydrate. Then, get a head start on the day with 30–45 minutes of exercise, such as a brisk walk or a yoga class.
7.30am Balanced brekkie
A combination of protein, carbs and healthy fats gives you the energy to power through your morning and also keeps you full for longer.
9.30am Pit stop
Skip the muffin or cake with your morning coffee, and instead pour out a big glass of water to go with it.
10.45am Morning munchies
Snack on a piece of fruit and small handful of nuts, which are rich in energising B vitamins and fibre to keep you satisfied until lunch.
12.30pm Light lunch
Avoid a heavy lunch as it will zap your energy while your body works hard to digest it. Instead, include complex carbs such as wholegrain bread or canned beans.
Don’t confuse your hunger for thirst — time for another big glass of water.
3.30pm Snack happy
Beat afternoon sleepiness with a low-GI snack that won’t send your blood sugar levels soaring sky-high.
7.00pm Protein-rich dinner
Aim to eat two hours before bed so your body has time to digest. Eat a palm-sized piece of lean protein with complex carbs and at least half a plate of colourful vegies.
9.00pm Tea time!
A steaming cup of herbal tea is a good way to wind down before heading to bed.
10.30pm Lights out
Shut off your electronic devices like mobile phones, laptops or the TV. Recharge with 7–8 hours of sleep.
Make a move
Get moving for at least 30 minutes a day. Even when you’re tired and exercise is the last thing on your mind, it can actually give you more energy! Getting active gets your blood pumping, releases feel-good endorphins and lowers the stress hormone, cortisol. It can also improve your sleep.
Keep these energising foods on high rotation. Eat a variety of them each day.
Leafy green vegies
Stress vs burnout
What’s sucking all my energy?
Being stressed affects your whole body. Stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, speed up your heart rate, breathing and metabolism.
Nature intended this to be a short-term reaction. But if you feel stressed over a long period of time, the extra pressure on your body can lead you to feel physically and mentally exhausted. This is called burnout, where you lose the drive and motivation for many of the things you previously enjoyed. Eating well can be your first step to getting back your vitality and energy.