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Whether working late on a paper, getting up early for job interviews or work, or even just going out with friends or family, Ashford students dread “the crash”: that sudden drop in energy that makes it impossible to take one more step or read one more page of notes.

The crash is not just a function of sleep, or a lack thereof; it also has to do with the food you eat. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 74 percent of students report changes in their mental and physical abilities based on the foods they eat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) back up these feelings, explaining that balanced nutrition increases energy and can also affect a person’s ability to cope with stress.

Foods that Sap Energy

Vending machines, cafeterias, and even grocery stores are packed with foods laden with saturated fats, processed flours, artificial sugars, artificial coloring, and preservatives,all of which can make your body tired and weigh you down.

Kristi King, Registered Dietician and Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, helps college students develop balanced dietary plans. She says that saturated fats can make you feel groggy, as can the excessive calories in fast-food snacks, take-out food, and alcohol. While your body works to break down these types of meals, it focuses energy on the digestive process. This means that less is being directed toward your brain and other systems.

Many prepared and pre-packaged foods are made with bleached, refined flours and lots of sugar. That means they have minimal nutritional value (empty calories) and can lead to a spike in sugar levels. While you might feel energized for a short time after eating these foods, you’ll quickly be tired again. Many people experience a sharp drop in mood parallels a drop in their blood sugar, leaving them feeling irritable and distracted.

More about sugar in foods

Sugary foods, as well as those with processed flours (which your body quickly turns into sugars), can make your energy level spike. But after a while, your blood sugar levels will begin to plummet.

For sustained energy, look for foods made with whole grains and read labels to find the grams of sugar per serving. Look for those sweetened with maple syrup, agave nectar, and honey, as they may have a lower glycemic index than those using refined white sugar. Sticking to these foods can result in more consistent blood sugar levels. For more about the glycemic index, CLICK HERE.

Foods that Energize

King advises, “Treat your body the way you would a sports car. Use premium fuel for a boost, like fruits and vegetables—not low-grade fuel, like fast-food.”

When asked what kinds of meals give them more energy, respondents to the Student Health 101 survey said that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and foods prepared at home made them feel not only more energetic, but also better about themselves in general.

Your brain needs many different nutrients to produce the neurotransmitters that regulate your mood. Fatigue and feeling low might indicate that your diet lacks important minerals. According to the journal Public Health Nutrition, a lack of iron—called anemia—commonly results in feelings of apathy, depression, and fatigue. Iron transports oxygen to cells, and without enough, you can feel tired, irritable, and unable to focus.

More sources of iron

Iron is essential to overall health, as it transports oxygen to cells. Without enough, you can feel tired, irritable, and unable to focus. Make sure you’re getting enough iron by eating:
  • Meat
  • Seafood
  • Soybeans
  • Lentils and other kinds of beans (legumes)
  • Green, leafy vegetables
For those with a vegetarian diet, beans and green leafy vegetables are especially important. Other sources of iron include fortified bread and cereal products, as well as oatmeal and raisins.

Another essential nutrient is thiamine, which turns carbohydrates into energy, especially for the brain. The National Institutes of Health suggest lean meats, eggs, nuts, legumes, and whole grains as good sources of this key nutrient.

Special Treats

Here’s some fantastic news: chocolate has been demonstrated to improve mood and increase energy. This may be because eating it satisfies cravings and is a pleasant sensory experience. Many people crave chocolate when feeling low, and when eating it makes them feel better, it becomes even more associated with a boost. For a lower-fat and more nutritionally dense chocolate kick, go with dark chocolate, rather than milk or white chocolate.

Caffeine, found in coffee, black tea, soft drinks, and energy drinks, can dramatically impact your energy level, temporarily. DJ C., a junior at Youngstown State University in Ohio, says, “Coffee is obviously a quick fix. I drink it because I often have to stay up for school or music gigs.”

Caffeine is a stimulant, so it can help you get out of bed in the morning or stay awake at night, but these effects can wear off fast. If you use caffeine regularly, you’ll build up tolerance and need more and more to get the same effect. Plus, caffeine is addictive, and can cause dangerous elevations in heart rate and blood pressure (caffeine jitters are a symptom), it also causes dehydration.

Why is dehydration a drag?

Drinking plenty of liquids, especially water, is vital for sustaining energy. It’s also essential for keeping your body running well, as it speeds along internal processes, including metabolism and digestion⎯which means you can turn food into energy more quickly.

It’s recommended to get at least 64 fluid ounces of liquids a day. That’s equivalent to eight glasses that are eight ounces each. So pick up a reusable water bottle, and fill it up!

Not Just What, but When

Though it’s not always convenient, eating a well-balanced breakfast is incredibly important.

The CDC indicates that “Eating a healthy breakfast is associated with improved cognitive function, especially memory and improved mood.” King agrees, saying, “Whether you have an 8:00 a.m. class 8:00 a.m. class [or work at 9:00 a.m.], breakfast really is the most important meal of the day.”

An optimal breakfast includes whole-grain carbohydrates and protein, both of which rev up your body and mind. The complex sugars found in fruit also provide a boost because your body takes a while to break these down.

Easy mood-boosting meal & snack options

Nutrient-rich vegetables and fruits are your best bet for both meals and snacks. Add in some complex, whole-grain carbohydrates and lean protein, and you’ll be prepared for whenever your stomach starts to grumble—or your mood starts to go downhill.

Here are some staples:
  • Multi-grain crackers
  • Seeded, whole-grain bread
  • Hummus
  • Low-sodium prepared beans
  • Frozen edamame (soybeans)—steam in the microwave for a great snack!
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • A variety of nuts
  • Raisins and prunes
  • Low-fat yogurt—Greek is higher in protein
  • Fresh or frozen fruit
  • Unsweetened peanut butter
  • Spinach, kale, broccoli, sweet potatoes, red and green peppers, and snow or sugar snap peas
A handful of veggies can be eaten fresh on its own as a snack, stir-fried or steamed as part of a meal, or packed inside sandwiches. Carrots, cut peppers, and snap peas make for satisfying, crunchy snacks. Dip them in unsweetened yogurt, cottage cheese, hummus, or homemade guacamole.

Fruits are a great to top yogurt, oatmeal, or a low-sugar cereal for breakfast You can also try toting an apple or banana to class, or adding some fresh fruit to a salad for a refreshing change of pace.

To make sure you’re getting all of the vitamins and minerals necessary to maintain both physical and mental health, it’s important to eat a variety of foods on a daily basis, and focus on those that are fresh, unprocessed, and simply prepared. King suggests always keeping energizing snacks around, so that when you are hungry, you have healthy options available.

By eating well, staying hydrated, and even enjoying the occasional chocolate, you’ll keep your body functioning smoothly all day, and if necessary, late into the night.

Take Action!

  • Make sure you eat a breakfast full of whole grains and protein for sustained energy.
  • Stay hydrated throughout the day and night. Drink more water!
  • Avoid saturated fats, bleached and processed flour, and unnecessary sugars; be careful with fast-food and pre-packaged meals.
  • Get necessary vitamins and minerals by eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, and lean sources of protein.

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