One of the most common complaints I hear about in clinic is about flagging energy and how to regain some of the seemingly limitless levels that we had when we were young. There are several factors that influence how energetic we might feel, ranging from sunlight to sleep, but in the first of a series of articles about energy, I’m going to focus on nutrients.
Food is many things – pleasure, sharing, history – but essentially it supplies nutrition, not least fuel. It's understandable that many clients ask about the nutrients they should look for and which foods they should eat to give them more energy. It seems straightforward enough but in truth that’s like asking which part of an aircraft makes it fly when in fact every part of the plane plays a role
Obviously, the process of making energy is highly complex but a good place to start when talking about it is with the mitochondria. These minuscule structures are found in nearly every cell in the human body and play a pivotal role in energy production. The numbers of mitochondria vary from cell to cell, with those found in muscles typically having the highest concentrations of mitochondria, whereas inactive fat cells have far fewer.
At the risk of being simplistic, it's useful to imagine that mitochondria ‘burn’ the elements of the food we eat to make a form of energy called adenosine triphosphate (or ATP) that can be stored and called upon when required.
ATP is created within the mitochondria in a chemical process called the Krebs Cycle (often called the citric acid cycle). Elements derived from fats, protein and carbohydrates go through a series of stages, each itself involving a multitude of nutrients, that result in ATP. Back when I was studying nutrition in the mid 1990s an enterprising peer created a diagram showing the outline of the multitude of processes in the Krebs Cycle highlighting the nutrients that have a notable role in each stage. I still have a copy of the diagram and it's a useful reminder that practically every nutrient plays a role and thus choosing a few that are more important than others would be like claiming that planes fly only because of the wings. They may be an integral part of creating lift, but can’t achieve flight in isolation.
That said it is worthwhile identifying a core of nutrients that are involved in many of the stages that lead to ATP production. They are, in alphabetical order;
As I said, quite a long list, and you will note that B vitamins all feature which goes some way to explain why they are often first in line when thinking about energy nutrients. If you do choose to take a supplement, there are a few things to bear in mind.
Firstly, think food first. Check up in which foods contain the nutrients you think you need and are you eating them regularly? I often ask clients to send me a day’s eating with rough amounts, so they might say they had two tablespoons of Greek yogurt, ten almonds and 40g blueberries for breakfast, and so on. I will then calculate their nutrient intake for the day which highlights what they are getting and if there are any gaps. It's a time-consuming but worthwhile process and helps highlight the nutrients in food, just in case there is too much focus on calories and whether the food is a protein, carb or fat.
Secondly, supplements are there as an add-on, not a replacement, and so taking them should be considered and measured. I know I would say this but get advice first – working with a nutrition professional will mean that you can make informed decisions and as you will likely be taking whatever is chosen for a while, be that three months or more, having a supplement regime that is personal and targeted should mean you don’t waste money by taking anything you really can’t use.
Lastly, some supplements have unexpected side effects. For example, lets say you take vitamin C and, in the mistaken belief that more is better, take 4000mg in one go, you will probably find that you get diarrhoea and possibly nausea and headaches. Less worryingly is vitamin B2, which you will find in many multivitamins and the B complex you might choose for energy. B2, or riboflavin, will turn urine bright yellow, which may be alarming at first, but has no worrying side effects.
In the next article I will be discussing various ways of eating that can help with feeling energetic, and after than we will be looking at how sleep, stress and the stage of life may affect energy.
Ian Marber’s interest in food and nutrition was piqued when diagnosed with coeliac disease in his late twenties. He soon after gave up a successful career in investment to study nutrition at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, graduating in 1999 and founding the now-globally recognised nutritional consultancy, The Food Doctor.
Departing the Food Doctor in 2012, Ian now advises individuals and industry alike. He has since worked with over 8,000 clients, leads seminars, workshops and lectures and works closely with brands such as Innocent Drinks to formulate new ranges. His expertise has lead him to be recognised as go-to contributor within the press, writing regularly in The Times, The Spectator and The Telegraph, as well as making regular appearances on both TV and radio.