Imagine walking the supermarket produce aisle and spotting a pile of watermelons with bright labels screaming "MEGA-PLUS ULTIMATE ENERGY BOOST!" Or catching an extreme sports competition on TV where the skateboarders' helmet stickers herald the games' sponsors: "Strawberries, for x-treme endurance!" Those foods, and a lot of others that fly under the radar, are at least as deserving of flashy labels as packaged snacks that promise a jolt. "Most of the really great 'energy foods' aren't marketed that way," says Lauren Antonucci, R.D., sports dietitian and owner of Nutrition Energy in New York City. "But in fact, some of the best choices are whole foods that are naturally high in nutrients like iron, protein, and essential fatty acids." And most of us are longing for that kind of extra bump: Three-quarters of shoppers say they want foods that give them more energy, according to a recent Rodale Shopping for Health survey.* We rounded up seven of the most highly charged, along with tasty ideas for how to eat 'em up. Start. Your. Engines!
At 93 percent H2O, this juicy orb is the fruit equivalent of an IV drip. "Most people don't realize that water-rich foods can contribute up to 20 percent of your fluid needs for the day," says Antonucci. In young women, even mild dehydration is linked with fatigue, according to research in the Journal of Nutrition, because water is needed to sustain almost all your body's functions. A cup and a half of cubed melon is as hydrating as an eight-ounce glass of water, and it's also naturally endowed with vitamins A, B6, and C, all of which have their own energizing properties.
Try this: Toss cubes with feta, olive oil, lime juice, and chopped fresh mint leaves.
A quarter-cup serving of these nuts delivers 30 percent of the magnesium you need each day—an impressive figure, considering that nearly half of all Americans don't get enough of the mineral, according to government data. Being low on magnesium can make you drag, because your body uses it to generate ATP, the molecule that transports energy between cells. Almonds are also an excellent source of B vitamins like folate and riboflavin, which help you convert calories into fuel.
Try this: Snacking on nuts or nut butters is the obvious strategy. But you can also use almond flour (from ground almonds) in place of breadcrumbs, or to replace one-quarter of the flour in baked goods.
Try this protein-packed vanilla almond yogurt dip:
Popping a few during your morning jog can put literal spring in your step. "Athletes like them for their quick hit of carbs and electrolytes," says Tara Gidus Collingwood, R.D., a sports dietitian in Orlando. One study found that raisins were just as effective at keeping runners' stamina up as were carbohydrate-based snacks designed for endurance. Athletes who ate either one during a 5-K shaved one minute off their race time, compared with those who only drank water. The ideal amount, per the study, is one ounce—about two mini boxes.
Try this: Jump-start your a.m. by adding raisins, paired with nuts, to your cereal or yogurt. "Nuts have fat, protein, and fiber, keeping you going over the long haul, and the carbs in raisins invigorate you short term," says Collingwood
Soy beans are a good source of folate, a B vitamin that plays a crucial role in turning food into energy. One cup of the beans (shelled) gives you a full day's worth of the vitamin, along with bonus magnesium and riboflavin, two minerals that provide extra pep. If you're concerned about the GMOs in soy, choose organic.
Try this: Steam edamame in the pod and sprinkle with chili powder and lime salt, or toss into cauliflower rice to bump up the meal's staying power.
Long before presidents were immortalized in the sprouts of the ch-ch-ch-chia, the seeds of this plant were a staple of the Aztecs and Mayans, who reportedly used them in energizing drinks before long-distance runs. And you can too: Chia seeds' concentration of protein, fiber, and energy-revving nutrients like magnesium and iron will keep you humming through the day. One study found that a DIY chia seed sports drink fueled workouts just as well as a store-bought one—sans added sugars.
Try this: Make your own citrusy, neo-Aztec energy drink by mixing two tablespoons of chia seeds with two cups of water, the juice of half a lemon or lime, and one tablespoon of honey or maple syrup. Refrigerate for two to three hours, then stir. You can also mix the seeds into yogurt or oatmeal for a quick fix. (And if you just can't deal with the gummy texture, try hemp seeds instead.)
Never tried these rich little fish? Time to give them a shot. Sardines are a top source of iron, which is crucial in transporting oxygen around your body—and oxygen feeds your muscles to keep them moving. Research shows that women who have low stores of iron, even if the levels aren't low enough to rate as anemia, have less energy and endurance than those with normal levels. Plus, these guys pack CoQ10, a vital player in your cells' powerhouse, the mitochondria.
Try this: Chop them and mix with cooked pasta, roasted cauliflower florets, red pepper flakes, and olive oil. Still not comfortable with the tiny fish? You can find similar amounts of iron in beef, shellfish, spinach, and pumpkin seeds.
Oranges seem to get all the vitamin C glory, but strawberries are, ounce for ounce, a superior source. When researchers gave overweight adults who were trying to shed pounds a daily dose of C, the test subjects felt less tired during 60-minute treadmill walking sessions than those who weren't taking the vitamin, according to a study in the journal Nutrition. "Foods with vitamin C also help your body absorb more fatigue-fighting iron," says Collingwood. One cup of strawberries will deliver 89 milligrams of vitamin C, more than your daily requirement of 75 milligrams.
Try this: Top a spinach salad with sliced strawberries to reap the benefits of C plus iron from leafy green
Energy and weight loss go hand-in-hand for a reason: When your battery’s charged, you’re more likely to crush it at the gym and have the mental stamina to avoid overindulging. As the pounds come off, your motivation to keep going will skyrocket your energy (the get-it-done oomph that comes with dropping a few is a nice perk, too). We asked Amanda Bontempo, M.S., R.D., an ambulatory oncology dietitian at New York University Langone Medical Center, to explain which foods boost your mojo while helping you drop pounds. Read on to get a little taste of this double-duty heaven.
Legumes like black beans and lentils are packed with resistant starches. “They’re a special kind of fiber that act as prebiotics to promote healthy gut bacteria and boost energy,” says Bontempo. They slowly release protein and energy, keeping you full to promote weight loss. “When cooking legumes, include some kind of high vitamin C food item such as citrus or tomato to increase iron absorption,” recommends Bontempo.
As a whole grain, oats are free of the refining process that can tank the health benefits of other grains. “Oats have soluble fiber, which means they absorb water, cholesterol, and help you avoid a sluggish immune system,” says Bontempo. Besides filling you up, that soluble fiber helps regulate your blood glucose levels, delivering a steady stream of energy, rather than spikes and crashes. “Seek out steel-cut and rolled oats over instant varieties to avoid craving-inducing added sugars,” says Bontempo. “Pair them with a topping of chopped nuts or Greek yogurt for added protein and longer-lasting satiety.”
SWEET POTATOES, YAMS, AND WINTER SQUASH
Bring on the delicious seasonal options! Rather than shedding their skin, use it to your benefit. “Other than butternut, kabocha, and spaghetti squash, you can eat the skin,” says Bontempo. “It provides added nutrients. Plus, the fiber in these starchy vegetables will give you a slow and steady increase in energy.” Complex carbohydrates work to keep you full and promote portion control.
CHIA AND FLAX SEEDS
These are popular for a reason—rich in fiber and heart-healthy fats, they help keep your digestive tract moving smoothly, which is key for optimal metabolism. “Chia seeds are unique in their ability to absorb liquids, creating a gel that helps you feel fuller longer,” says Bontempo. “They’re trendy now, but they’re an ancient secret for sustained energy and metabolism.”
VEGGIES IN THE CABBAGE FAMILY
“Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, and kale promote weight loss and help the body get rid of potential carcinogens,” says Bontempo. They’re super low-cal but have high fiber and water contents, which will work their special magic to keep you feeling satisfied. “Selenium and sulfur-rich, cruciferous vegetables help promote liver detoxification and optimal organ function for sustained energy,” says Bontempo. Bonus: They boost collagen production for healthy skin and hair.
“They’re full of heart-smart monounsaturated fats to promote vitamin and mineral absorption,” says Bontempo. Getting the maximum effect from your nutrients means additional energy to carry you through the day. As for the weight loss part? “We digest fat more slowly than any other nutrient, which keeps you satiated,” says Bontempo. “They’re also unexpectedly high in fiber.”
“Items like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut can alter your intestinal microbiome to promote healthy metabolism and weight loss,” says Bontempo. This comes as no surprise since gut health is emerging as a key factor in weight loss. “An unhealthy microbiome from a diet high in processed foods and refined sugar is associated with overweight, obesity, and metabolic syndrome,” says Bontempo. “Fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir are also high in protein to keep you full and give you energy.” Go for products without added sugars to reap the most benefits possible.
Ready for a fun food fact? Quinoa is actually a seed. This naturally gluten-free option is a cinch to whip up, making it a good snack when you need a jolt of energy fast. Plus, it happens to provide twice the protein of grains, which makes it extra-filling. “Quinoa is also one of the few plant sources of complete protein, providing all essential amino acids for optimal energy,” says Bontempo.
“White, green, oolong, pu-erh tea are the best because they are minimally processed,” says Bontempo. “They contain hundreds of compounds that are beneficial to your metabolism.” While they offer a substantial amount of caffeine, they pack less than coffee—so you get some stimulation with none of the jitters.
It’s a well-known fact that staying hydrated can prevent you from mistaking thirst for hunger, but it’s also crucial to your energy supply. “When water is almost 70 percent of our body’s makeup, proper hydration is essential for optimal organ function,” says Bontempo. It aids kidney and liver function, which encourages gastrointestinal regularity. “If water’s not your thing, try flavoring your water yourself with sliced cucumber, raspberries, or fresh citrus juice,” says Bontempo.