It’s something we never have enough of, but what we eat can really make a difference to our energy levels, says Emma Cockrell
Energy is a fundamental requirement for living. Our bodies need energy to move, to breathe, to grow, to make repairs, to function, to live. We are truly “fearfully and wonderfully made”! (Psalm 139:14). God has marvellously designed food to be the fuel for this energy, but with so much choice available to us now, it is important to consider which foods will actually provide energy most effectively.
How energy is produced?
When many foods are eaten and digested, they are broken down to their simplest form – glucose. Glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream where it is carried to the cells of the body to provide energy. The body is perfectly designed to keep the level of glucose in the blood within a safe and functional range.
Following meals, blood sugar will rise, so the pancreas secretes insulin to increase the rate at which the body’s cells can take up glucose, thereby bringing blood sugar back to an even level. Refined carbohydrates and sugars, however, are converted to glucose very quickly, which enters the bloodstream rapidly, causing a sharp increase in blood sugar. To compensate, the pancreas over-releases insulin in order to encourage the cells to take up the glucose and get it out of the blood. This in turn may lead to a steep drop in blood glucose levels, leaving the cells low in energy, causing us to feel tired, irritable, headachy or hungry.
The first choice, therefore, is to opt for foods that help keep blood sugar at a safe and optimal level.
•?Unrefined grains, such as wholegrain brown rice, wholemeal bread, wholemeal pasta and flour, oats, quinoa and buckwheat, all contain fibre. This means it takes longer for them to be digested than refined grains (eg white bread and rice), and so they offer a gentle and steady supply of glucose into the blood stream, consequently providing us with a more balanced source of energy.
•?Protein foods, such as poultry, fish, eggs, beans and lentils, nuts, seeds and dairy produce are digested slowly, so do not cause a high peak in blood sugar levels but promote a steady release of energy. It is important therefore that protein is included at every meal to help prevent dips in blood sugar mid-morning and mid-afternoon.
Once glucose reaches the cells, it goes through a complex process of being broken down further in order to produce energy. This procedure consists of several stages, and each of these stages works most effectively if certain nutrients are in place. A number of vitamins and minerals are required during this process, but key players are the family of B vitamins and magnesium.
•?The B vitamins are found in sunflower seeds, nuts, whole grains, beans and legumes, leafy green vegetables and meat.
•?Magnesium is found in nuts, whole grains, leafy green vegetables and seeds.
Ideas for an energy-supporting diet
It is interesting to note that those very foods which help support blood sugar also provide the nutrients that are important in energy production. For example, wholemeal flour contains five times the amount of magnesium found in white flour, and more than twice as much vitamin B5.
A diet to support energy should therefore reduce refined, processed foods and sugary products and replace them with whole grain carbohydrates, protein foods and a large variety of vegetables, including green leafy veg. Not only are vegetables full of vital vitamins and minerals, but they also contain fibre, which slows down the digestive process, limiting their impact on blood sugar. Aim to include at least five portions of vegetables each day, incorporating a wide variety of colours to gain a good cross-section of nutrients.
•?Choose sugar-free wholegrain cereals. Rather than adding sugar, top with natural yogurt.
•?Cook porridge oats without sugar and add a pinch of cinnamon, bringing a fragrant flavour and helping to support blood sugar. Stir in some ground or chopped sunflower seeds.
•?Enjoy a large mixed salad, trying a different combination of vegetables each day. Top with cooked chicken, fish or hummus. Add virgin olive oil and lemon juice for extra flavour. Serve with whole grain rye bread.
•?Make home-made soup using seasonal vegetables and serve with a chunk of wholemeal bread spread with almond butter.
•?Stir-fry shredded vegetables, such as green cabbage, onion, red pepper, mange tout, carrot and broccoli, over a low heat with one teaspoon of virgin coconut oil and a teaspoon each of grated fresh ginger and crushed garlic. Add some cooked chicken strips, prawns or kidney beans. Season with sugar-free soya sauce and serve with wholewheat noodles, or wholegrain brown rice.
•?Cut sweet potatoes into ‘chips’ and bake in a medium-hot oven with a little virgin coconut oil for about 45 minutes, until soft. Dip white fish or salmon fillets in a beaten egg and then pat with sesame seeds. Bake for 30-40 minutes and serve with the ‘chips’ and a selection of steamed vegetables.
Swap biscuits for oatcakes. Eat plain or top with nut butter, hummus or cottage cheese to increase protein.
+ Emma is married to Peter, a church pastor and international Bible teacher. She practises nutritional therapy from her home in Essex, and is also nutritional director for Nutritionhelp, an online nutritional advice company.
1 mug oats
1 tablespoon virgin coconut oil
With a wooden spoon, work the coconut oil into the oats. Continue stirring, and gradually add enough boiling water (about 4-5 tablespoons) to form a ball of dough. Allow to stand for a few minutes. Shake some oats over a wooden board, and carefully roll out the dough to ¼ cm thickness. Cut into shapes and bake at 180°C for 20-30 minutes until firm. Cool on a wire rack and store in an air-tight jar.
Red Pepper and Paprika Hummus
1½ cups cooked chickpeas
1 red pepper, diced and sautéed with a teaspoon of virgin coconut oil
2 teaspoons light tahini
Juice from ½ a lemon
1 crushed garlic clove
½ teaspoon of sweet paprika
Black pepper and reduced sodium salt to taste
Cold pressed rice bran oil to mix
Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend, adding a little rice bran oil to obtain a smooth consistency. Sprinkle with paprika to serve.