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Fiftysomething Diet: Four Ways to Get More Energy

It's what you eat that really counts. Here are your body's must-haves.

By Maureen Callahan | December 19, 2012
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Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the Health.com diet book review series.

Can’t keep pace with the kids, the grandkids or your kick-butt workout classes? Forget sipping on trendy energy drinks and start thinking about what’s on your plate. Everyday, run-of-the-mill fatigue and sluggishness often have more to do with what you eat than with poor sleep, stress or even lack of exercise. A less-than-stellar diet actually drains your energy reserves, while a well-balanced approach, particularly one that takes into account your fiftysomething body's particular needs, can kick your energy into overdrive. Start employing these four strategies and get ready to feel the vigor.

(More: Boomer Bellies: Can Middle-Age Spread Be Avoided
 
1. Eat Only Whole Grains 

Even if they didn’t help lower your risk for heart disease and diabetes, whole grains would be energy standouts because they deliver slow release energy, the kind that keeps blood sugar steady and lasts for a long time. It’s a good strategy at any age, but it’s even more important in later years when sensitivity to insulin (the hormone that helps control blood sugar) starts to diminish. A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that older adults who ate diets rich in whole grains (along with other healthy foods) increased their body’s sensitivity to insulin. In other words, their insulin worked more effectively, carrying sugar from foods into cells rather than leaving it in the blood where it can accumulate in high levels, cause lethargy and set the stage for diabetes.

Ready to search out whole grains? Keep in mind that the less processed the grain, the better. That means steel cut oats instead of instant oatmeal, brown rice instead of white rice. And so on. Wondering how to cook with whole grains? Try this recipe for Mixed-Up Grains. (Learn more about whole grains from the Harvard School of Public Health.)

2. Drink More, and Drink Often — Preferably Water

Water performs hundreds of critical functions in the body, from transporting oxygen to acting as a coolant to keeping tissues hydrated. But one of its most important jobs, and the one directly related to putting some zip in your step, is its ability to act as a medium for most of the chemical reactions inside the body, particularly the production of energy. It’s a simple equation: Shortchange yourself on water and you cut back on the body’s ability to produce energy.

Think you can just let thirst dictate your water needs? Think again. As you age, thirst becomes a less reliable indicator of your fluid needs. You’re better off drinking water throughout the day to make sure your hydration needs are met. How much? If you’re into counting cups, the Institute of Medicine advises men to drink 13 cups of fluid, and women 9 cups per day — that includes all beverages and fluid-rich produce, which provides about 20 percent of your needs. Still not sure you’re drinking enough? Experts say the best marker that your water intake is adequate is urine that is clear to light yellow in color. Another bonus: Preliminary studies suggest drinking plenty of water could help prevent bladder and colorectal cancers and possibly improve mental performance.

3. Go Easy on Sugars

Not only do sugars and sweets offer absolutely zip when it comes to nutrients, they’re the worst offenders when it comes to producing the classic energy crash. Sweet foods send blood sugar levels soaring, then sinking, as they put a strain on body systems that regulate blood sugar. To understand how it happens, you need to understand how a food impacts blood sugar using a yardstick called glycemic index — a measure of how carbohydrates (sugars or starches) raise blood sugar after they’re consumed. Foods with a high glycemic index are quickly digested and absorbed and cause blood sugar levels to zoom. Low GI foods, which are more slowly digested, initiate slower rises in blood sugar.

Dr. Jennie Brand-Miller at the University of Sydney offers this list of high and low GI foods (just type in the food you want to know about) Or check out this list from Harvard Medical School. But you don't need a list to know that simple sugars — the sugar you put in coffee, sugary cereal, a sweet dessert — offer a burst of energy as they raise blood sugar. Alas, that energy is short-lived. Another concern for fiftysomethings: Science is finding that sugar isn’t so good for the aging brain, as this recent Forbes article reports.
 
4. Limit Energy Drinks and Caffeine

Energy drink companies are zeroing in on a new target audience of fifty- and sixtysomethings, and while it may be tempting to latch on to the promise of a youthful energy tonic, you should resist. As Dr. Evelyn C. Granieri, co-chief of the Division of Geriatric Medicine and Aging at Columbia University, told The Wall Street Journal, the B vitamins and other nutrients found in energy shots are unnecessary. What you're left paying $3 or $4 for, then, is an expensive dose of caffeine. And the problem with caffeine, as any java junkie knows, is that when it eventually wears off, your energy levels plummet. Unless you want to keep riding the roller coaster by downing even more shots or cups of joe, you’re still going to end up in the same energy funk.

A bigger problem: Caffeine is a drug that, if taken to excess, can raise your blood pressure and heart rate — probably not a good idea for older hearts. Several deaths have already been linked to highly caffeinated energy drinks; experts suspect caffeine is the culprit. Keep in mind that caffeine energy also comes with some negative side effects, like jitteriness, headaches and anxiety. It can also lead to restless nights and poor quality sleep. Still want a little caffeine? One drink or one cup of coffee isn't a problem. An energy dependency that has you drinking over 500 milligrams a day is. That’s the equivalent of two-and-a-half 5-Hour Energy Shots (each delivering 207 mg of caffeine), or two Starbucks Pike Place brewed 16 ounce coffees (330 mg each). (Discover the caffeine content of coffee, tea and other drinks at the Mayo Clinic.)
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