University of Southern Indiana

The POWER of Food: exercising right eating

By Wendy Bredhold ʼ98 

During times of high anxiety many of us seek comfort in sugary and high-carb foods such as ice cream, chocolate, macaroni and cheese, pasta, candy and nachos. Frazzled from stress at the office or impending finals, people often turn to caffeine and sugar for an energy boost that helps them focus. 

But Beth Young, USI instructor in food and nutrition, says caffeine and sugary foods offer only a very brief boost of energy followed by a quick crash, noting, “If you religiously consume caffeine, your body is not going to have that reaction to it. But if you’re someone who ordinarily has moderate or low amounts of caffeine, you could see that jolt of focus and your energy level might be up a bit. You’ll see that benefit only if you don’t have a high tolerance to it.” 

The lift from sugar is similarly fleeting. “When you consume sugar, you get that energy rush because your body metabolizes it and breaks it down really quickly. So you do get that surge of energy, but shortly after, you crash.”

To keep energy levels consistent, it helps to eat regularly spaced meals and snacks throughout the day. “Every three to four hours, have a snack or a small meal like a piece of fruit and peanut butter, yogurt or trail mix—something with calories, but also protein and fiber. That will keep you sustained until your next meal, so you don’t get hungry and make poor decisions.”

Protein and fiber provide sustaining energy because they help the body “stretch out” the process of digestion. “It takes longer for the body to break down proteins, and it can’t fully break down fiber, so the body has to work harder. The food stays in your system longer, and you don’t get that spike and crash. You get more stabilization of blood sugar and energy levels.”

So instead of a candy bar and a soft drink, Young recommends grabbing an apple with some peanut butter. “You’re going to get natural sugar and fiber from the apple, and if you put some natural peanut butter on it, you’re getting a good protein and a good healthy fat with it. You’re going to get energy from the carbs—from that natural sugar—but then the protein and the fiber are going to help stretch that snack out a bit. And, if you use a natural peanut butter—one mixed with flaxseed oil—you can get some Omega-3s.” 

There is evidence to suggest that adequate consumption of Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and vitamin D may help lay the groundwork for improving memory, focus and general health as we age. Young recommends all three be included in our diets for long-term health. “The solid research and data on the benefits of nutrition are at the extremes of the age span,” she says. Research shows a strong correlation between fatty acids and brain and eye development in infants up to age three, and there is evidence to suggest that adequate consumption of Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and vitamin D may help lay the groundwork for improving memory, focus and general health as we age.

Omega 3s can be found in fatty fish, walnuts and flaxseeds. Young says unless you are pregnant, people can safely consume two servings of fatty fish such as salmon or mackerel per week without worrying about the toxic effects of mercury consumption. “Generally, with about two servings per week, you’re going to be OK with the mercury levels and also get enough Omega-3s.”

Antioxidants are another essential nutrient. They help correct damage from free radicals, which cause disease and inflammation in our bodies. “If you consume lots of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, you’re guarding yourself against damage from environmental stressors.” 

The final nutrient to consciously include in our diets is vitamin D. Nation-wide, many people are discovering they are vitamin D deficient due to minimal exposure to the sun. “There are certain geographic regions that may be more susceptible to a deficiency in the vitamin due to the decreased level of sun exposure in the winter months,” Young said. A deficiency in vitamin D affects bone health. There aren’t many food sources of vitamin D, but they include fortified dairy products and mushrooms that have been exposed to ultraviolet light. When the sun is out, Young advises getting 15 to 20 minutes of exposure on your arms and legs without the use of sunscreen to allow for the body to absorb the vitamin. “That’s enough for the day.”

So what’s the best way to see an immediate improvement in energy levels and focus? Exercise. “Exercising and staying active increases blood flow, those feel-good hormones get released and that’s going to help sharpen your attention and your mood is going to be better,” Young says. 

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