Eating for energy: The time management hack that works for everyone

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If you’re looking to squeeze more work out of your day or more time for personal priorities into your schedule, you have probably tried some of the myriad time management and scheduling hacks available. Some of these work well. But many ignore the fundamental truth that time management is heavily influenced by how well we manage our energy.

And our energy management is heavily influenced by one of the most fundamental needs of all: Nutrition, and the ways we fuel (and don’t fuel) our bodies.

Food as fuel

Humans have a complicated relationship with food. The rituals of sharing meals with others serve as a necessary form of cultural connection and tradition, yet many people also struggle with the consequences of turning to food for comfort or out of habit, and some develop disordered patterns associated with food that hurt them.

I want to acknowledge that it can be difficult or even impossible to set these considerations aside. But when you do, what you are left with is food as energy. Without energy you can’t do what needs to be done, and without food, you don’t have energy. This post is meant to help you optimize that relationship.

The big 3

Fundamentally, food is composed of fats, carbohydrates and proteins (there’s more, but these are the big three). Energy is measured in kilocalories (which we commonly simplify to “calories”), and each of these macromolecules delivers an energy punch. That’s four calories per gram of carbs and protein and nine per gram of fat, but I encourage you not to get mired in the numbers.

Carbs, protein and fat have different roles in our bodies, and we need all three. Carbs are important for brain and muscle function, and complex carbs such as whole grains can help keep blood sugar — and your energy levels — steady. Proteins repair and build muscle while contributing to satiety (the feeling that you are “full” or “satisfied” or have “had enough” food). Fats also contribute to satiety, and healthy fats are associated with a variety of heart health and other benefits.

Your body is in a constant state of breaking down and rebuilding at the cellular level. These molecules are the building blocks. Eating for optimal energy requires them all, but we don’t need to get too mired in the biochemistry. Just recognize that although fad diets can demonize macromolecules like carbs or fats, you need them all and each meal should include a mix.

Ideally, for most people and except in special circumstances, 45%-65% of your diet should be carbs, and some of the best sources are high in fiber as well as vitamins and minerals. Protein should account for 10% to 35% of your intake, and you should prioritize sources that are lower in saturated fat. Fats should account for 20% to 35% of energy intake, and again, healthier fats should take priority.

Fuel throughout the day

We are all familiar with the post-feast slump perhaps best known for its association with Thanksgiving naps. In reality, there are a lot of factors thought to contribute to postprandial sleepiness, but a big one is believed to be meal size. Eat too little at any one time and you won’t see any bump in energy, but eat too much, and you’ll need to hit the couch while you digest. Eat the wrong mix and you’ll see a spike in energy (caused by a spike in blood sugar, such as after a pile of simple carbs), followed by a crash.

What you want to aim for is consistent energy. One way you can do this is by breaking the traditional breakfast-lunch-dinner trifecta into mini meals spread throughout the day. A mix of macronutrients in each mini meal will help keep you even more steady. But if you’re committed to the ritual of three meals, again, a mix of carbs, protein and healthy fats will keep you going over the long haul.

The schedule is important, but it’s more flexible than you might believe: For example, breakfast matters, but timing depends on your body. If you’re not ready to eat right after rolling out of bed, that’s OK. It’s also OK to eat in the evening, but less is more, especially if you are prone to digestive issues like heartburn.

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

Coffee may fuel a lot of our work world, but water is often the quick-fix liquid we really need. Much of your body by weight is water, but your body is always losing it, so your reserves need to be replenished. Dehydration can compromise mood, focus and, yes, energy. Most of us are familiar with the recommendation to drink 64 ounces a day, but in reality, everyone is different. Aim to hydrate regularly, consume foods like fruits that are high in water content, and when you’re tired, pour a glass of water and notice how you feel after you drink up.

Learn what works for you

Just as no single time management technique works for everyone, no single eating-for-energy plan is right for all bodies and lifestyles. As you seek to optimize your energy management, consider spending some time observing yourself. Perhaps start a journal and keep track of what you eat, how much you sleep, your activity habits and how all that adds up to a picture of what works for you – and what doesn’t. No one can simply write you a prescription for optimal energy management, but your observations will enable you to develop your own.

As you do this, please consider sharing what works for you. We all need a variety of tools in our time and energy management toolbox. I’d love to hear what’s in yours!

Last updated February 23, 2021

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