How to Eat for Energy
Sara Wing, RD is the Director of Community Marketing for Cabot Creamery, a Registered Dietitian, mom of two teens, and a specialist on nutrition, consumer behaviors and dairy trends.
Have you ever wondered if eating specific foods at specific times—or in a particular order—can influence your energy levels or impact your overall health?
The short answer is yes—it matters. The order in which we eat our food actually does impact how our body responds, especially when it comes to influencing blood sugar levels (aka blood glucose).
Put another way, that cheese board appetizer you want to pick at has the potential to boost energy in the short term, and improve your overall health long term. So, go for it! And don’t hesitate to round out your board or tray with some fiber-rich vegetables (think: broccoli, carrots, green beans, pickled okra). Read on to learn why.
The Benefits of Meal Sequencing
In nutrition circles, eating foods in a particular order is called food sequencing or meal sequencing. Proponents of meal sequencing recommend eating your carbohydrates towards the end of your meal (and preferably so-called complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, or whole grain bread).
Eating this way helps keep your blood sugar levels steady. Steady blood glucose levels—no big spikes or plunges after eating a snack or meal—helps maintain even-keeled energy levels. In fact, a study published in September 2020 found that eating protein and/or fat (like what you’d find in a couple of ounces of Cabot’s award-winning Cheddar or Plain Greek Yogurt) before eating carbohydrates (like what you’d find in bread, crackers, pasta, rice, etc.), lessens your body’s blood sugar spike after the meal.
If the goal is to keep your blood sugar levels fairly steady, research shows there are some specific nutrients—and foods—that are more helpful than others.
What to Eat to Sustain Your Energy
1. High-protein snacks & meals
Protein is a superstar in the world of blood sugar control! It blunts blood sugar spikes after a snack or meal and also has a positive influence on your hunger hormones (keeping you feeling fuller longer). Also, research shows that eating a higher-protein diet helps with overall blood sugar control.
2. Whole-wheat and whole-grain carbs
Also known as complex carbs, the advantage of whole-wheat and whole-grain carbs is fiber. Fiber helps slow down digestion, which slows your blood sugar response after a meal—aka longer slower rise in blood sugar versus a steep spike. And also research shows that energy levels were higher after people ate a breakfast of mostly whole-wheat foods (oatmeal, All-Bran, bran flakes, etc.) compared to those who ate a breakfast of mostly refined, white carbs (cornflakes, Coco Pops, white bread).
3. Nuts and seafood (think: healthy fats!)
More specifically fatty, oily fish like salmon. In a small study, people who ate 5 servings of fatty fish each week (26 ounces total) improved their blood sugar control after meals. And their improvements were greater than their counterparts who ate the same number of servings of lean fish.
Other studies show similar benefits (aka better blood sugar control after a meal) when people include nuts in their daily diet. For example, this study gave participants about 2 ounces of peanuts or almonds each day and both groups improved their blood sugar control.
The authors of both studies think that the healthy fats in their respective food items studied could have played a role in tempering blood sugar spikes and steadying energy.
Bottom line: The science of meal sequencing is far from settled. But there does appear to be enough evidence to suggest it may be a better approach to mealtime, especially if you want to keep your energy levels steady.
Plus who can really argue with some cheese and whole-wheat crackers or a handful of nuts before dinner?
Need more ideas? Here are our top picks for meal starters that contain protein, fat and fiber: