I Tried 6 Energy-Boosting Foods. Here’s What Really Works.

Find out which energy-boosting foods will fight off the 3 o'clock slump (and which ones fell short).

Cropped image of a young casual woman eating fresh vegetables for breakfast indoorsShutterstock/Dean Drobot

In a yoga class the other day, I found myself yawning so much that the bendy guy up front asked me if I’d like some coffee to go with my cobra pose, which I guess is yoga humor. The other far-too-serious yogi-wannabes shot judgmental glances at me for not deriving the same magical power boost from deep backbends as they did.

“Actually, what I could use is a piece of salmon,” is what I should have replied. But, I didn’t, of course, because then I’d be the weird girl.

What was on my mind was the list of energy-boosting foods I’d just researched for this very piece, which you’ll find below, and which nutrition experts say produce far better yawn-stopping properties than a latte. But before we get to that, a few tips for keeping your energy levels up throughout the day via your food choices.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, you should:

  • Eat every three to four hours so your blood sugar doesn’t take a dip and send you into a sleepy haze.
  • Watch your portion sizes. If you’re not hungry every three to four hours, chances are the portion size of your last meal was too big.
  • Have a coffee and food. Caffeine can provide an energy boost, but not a long-lasting one. The best energizing foods are those that contain carbs, protein and fat, which will not only help you stay alert but also keep you feeling full, so you’re not utilizing the secret candy stash in your desk/the freezer every hour.

And, watch what you’re craving. Quick grabs like cereal may seem healthy, but they lack protein and are often high in energy-crashing sugar. Carbohydrates can be a quick energy boost because our bodies easily turn them into glucose, which is the body’s get-up-and-go fuel. But you can prolong that energy by eating some protein along with carbs, which can slow down the rate at which your body absorbs them. (Try these protein-packed snacks.)

Caution: Being continually low in energy or fatigued to a point where it’s interfering with your ability to go about your normal day is cause for concern. Make sure to talk to your doctor who can make sure there’s not something else more serious going on.

Let’s Test Them Out

Nutrition experts say the following six foods will give you more pep in your step. I decided to see if this was true by nixing my usual afternoon cup of coffee each day and trying one out. I rated each on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being on par with the tryptophan effect after Thanksgiving dinner and 10 being a double espresso.

Apples

Some experts say you should reach for an apple instead of a cup of coffee if you want to feel more awake in the morning. Latte-devotees around the world may raise an eyebrow in unison, but there is some truth to this. While apples don’t provide the same stimulation as caffeine, they do provide carbs, calories and fiber, which means longer-lasting energy instead of a quick perk up followed by a crash that some flavored coffee drinks deliver.
Rating: 5. On the plus side, I didn’t get more tired. I just didn’t feel any more alert. On the other hand, I didn’t have any more snack cravings that afternoon.

Blueberries

High in disease-fighting antioxidants and low on the glycemic index scale (think: no sugar crash), these little nuggets of nutrients also deliver fiber to keep you full. They’re also a good source of manganese, a mineral that helps convert carbohydrates and fats into energy. Plus, researchers found blueberries increased memory and concentration skills in older adults.
Rating: 7. Even though you could whip up something like this Blueberry Cantaloupe Salad, I decided to just go with a half-cup of berries on their own. I was admittedly surprised to feel my energy felt up for several hours afterward with no sharp crash, and no additional cravings to go back for more.

Salmon

Besides a host of benefits that eating salmon provides, such as lowering your risk of heart disease and certain cancers, boosting your brain power and helping to build and maintain strong bones, this yummy fish is plentiful in all the B vitamins, which help metabolize energy. Even though smoked salmon provides the same benefits, it also comes with a high dose of sodium and also a slight risk of listeria, a bacteria that can cause food poisoning. Instead, you might want to try the Northwest Salmon Salad where the fish is baked and—bonus!—it includes blueberries.
Rating: 8. Wow, is salmon the new coffee? Maybe someone should tell Starbucks to create a Salmon Frappuccino because I definitely felt more awake after my salmon salad lunch. The thought of a coffee didn’t even cross my mind. I’ll be trying one of these top 10 salmon recipes next.

Edamame

We know this yummy Asian appetizer as a precursor to sushi, but on their own, these little soybeans can be a great snack. They’re packed with iron, and iron not only carries oxygen to our cells but is also necessary for the body’s production of energy. Vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron, so eating ½ cup of edamame with a serving of sweet peppers, which are a great source of vitamin C, could be magic. You could also try the Soba Noodles with Ginger-Sesame Dressing, which comes topped with 2 cups of edamame.
Rating: 5. I’m not sure I necessarily felt more energized after snacking on some edamame, but I did crave sushi, so there’s that. Still, they’re healthy, so I consider this snack a win.

Almonds

These calorie-dense nuts can pack in a lot of energy in a small serving, while their high-fiber content helps keep you full. A cup of almonds can give you some 800 calories, so you’ll want to go easy on this snack and just grab a small handful to deliver a mid-day energy boost. Or, make ahead these Buttery Almond Green Beans for your lunch tomorrow.
Rating: 8. I’ve long been an almond devotee, but I typically use them to squelch my cravings to eat an entire box of Girl Scout Cookies (not that there’s anything wrong with that—you can justify it’s for charity). But I was surprised to try them while paying special attention to my energy level. I found my concentration sharpened and my eyelids far less heavy during my meetings-heavy afternoon.

Sweet Potatoes

These root veggies contain iron as well as complex carbohydrates, which means that your body will take longer to break them down for energy, storing the excess glycogen in the liver or muscles to use it later as fuel when needed. And, they’re also another good fiber source, helping you feel fuller longer. These Beet and Sweet Potato Fries are a colorful anytime snack.
Rating: 3. Even though sweet potatoes are delicious, I think I’ll leave them for dinnertime and not mid-afternoon. I definitely did not feel more alert after a large sweet potato for lunch and, in fact, contemplated napping. Turns out, while some experts say they’re good for energy, others say the potassium in sweet potatoes relaxes your muscles and promotes sleep. Go figure.

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Amanda Kippert
Amanda Kippert has been an award-winning freelance journalist for nearly two decades. She is based in Tucson, Arizona and specializes in food, health, fitness, parenting and humor, as well as social issues. She is the content editor of the domestic violence nonprofit DomesticShelters.org.