It’s mad tempting to reach for your fourth cup of coffee…an energy drink…or literally any form of caffeine when you’re taking a ride on the exhaustion train.
But the best fuel when you need to liven up is actually, wait for it…carbs. (Praise be!) “Carbohydrates are broken down to glucose, the body’s main source of energy,” says Germaine Guy, R.D. “Choose a fiber-rich, minimally processed carb, and pair it with healthy fat or protein to slow down digestion and extend energy levels,” Guy says.
Skip anything with excess added sugar to avoid a blood glucose spike and drop (a.k.a a truly epic sugar crash), and opt for whole foods over packaged (or at least check those nutrition labels), recommends Miho Hatanaka, R.D.
Score a mega-charge with these 27 foods that give you energy the 100 percent natural way.
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Apple + nut butter
“It’s perfect: healthy, with quick energy, and so portable,” says Keri Gans, R.D., author of The Small Change Diet. “The carbs and sugar in fruit is natural,” she says. Oranges, bananas, grapes—they’re all delicious and fair game.
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Whole-wheat toast + white beans + olive oil + herbs
If you love hummus but want something a little bit different, try smashing a quarter-cup canned white beans and one teaspoon olive oil onto a slice of whole-wheat toast, then sprinkling some chopped parsley or basil on top. Double up with two slices and you have yourself a light meal.
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Peeking in her own cabinets, Gans spots this energy-boosting food, noting, “it’s very high in fiber and very high in protein.” Simply thaw frozen shelled edamame beans, toss with olive oil, sea salt and black pepper, and roast on a baking sheet at 375°F for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes until the beans begin to darken and crisp up. Gans recommends a quarter-cup serving.
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Low-fat chocolate milk
“You could be dragging because you’re dehydrated,” says Gans. “Sometimes, something cold and refreshing is all you need.” Gans buys Organic Valley’s individual drinks; “I love them as a pick-me-up.”
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Low-sugar Greek yogurt + berries
Greek yogurt is an ideal snack because it’s rich in protein, but it can be high in sugar. Amanda Blechman, R.D., recommends Two Good Greek low-fat yogurt, which has less sugar than average yogurts.
Pair a low-sugar Greek yogurt with a handful of berries, which pack healthy carbs alongside fiber, to slow digestion.
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Cottage cheese + grapefruit
The healthy fats in low-fat cottage cheese (Gans likes the 90-calorie Breakstone version) make for a great snack. Pair a hearty scoop with grapefruit wedges for an instant pick-me-up, courtesy of the protein in the cottage cheese, grapefruit’s natural carbs, and the aroma of citrus that instantly awakens your senses.
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Peanut butter + vanilla yogurt + whole-grain graham crackers
“I love mixing a tablespoon of creamy nut butter into a half-cup vanilla Greek yogurt, then dipping whole-grain graham crackers for a little something sweet in the afternoon,” says Blechman. The graham crackers have a little added sugar, but its digestion is slowed by fiber from whole grains, protein from yogurt, and healthy fat from nut butter.
“They’re low in sugar, high in fiber, and easy to take along with you,” says Gans. “I love the Dark Chocolate Sea Salt, and a new one, the Dark Chocolate Mocha Almond.”
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A handful of trail mix
No-sugar-added trail mix made with dried fruit and nuts (steer clear of mixes with add-ins like chocolate or candy—sorry!) is one of Hatanaka’s go-to snack choices. Nuts are pretty calorie-dense, so keep your portions size to a quarter-cup to make sure the snack doesn’t weigh you down.
Laughing Cow Cheese Wedges Creamy Queso Fresco and Chipotle (Pack of 12)
Laughing Cow Cheese Wedges
“It sounds weird, but cheese and chips is a great combo for energy,” says Gans. “Just smear it on!” The baked chips are packed with protein and fiber, and The Laughing Cow Light spreadable wedges boast 35 calories each. Try the Light Queso Fresco & Chipotle flavor. “Spicy can wake you up!” says Gans.
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Baked sweet potato + almond butter
Hatanaka loves the combination of a simple baked sweet potato, microwaved, and topped with a generous drizzle of nut butter. Roast a big batch of small sweet potatoes early in the week, then reheat them as needed for snacks and meals.
String cheese + pear
Pears are a relatively high-sugar fruit, but they’re also super-rich in fiber—one medium pear has six grams, more than 20 percent of the 25 grams you need each day. That makes the fruit’s sugars slow to digest and super-energizing. Hatanaka loves pairing one (no pun intended) with a low-fat string cheese, which packs protein and a little fat.
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Black bean + corn + avocado salad
Black beans are rich in both carbs and plant-based protein, so they’ve got a ton of staying power. Mix half a cup canned black beans with half a cup thawed frozen corn kernels and a quarter chopped avocado, then dress it with a little bit of lime juice and chili powder.
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Low-fat milk + low-sugar granola
As far as protein sources go, milk is totally underrated. One cup of 2 percent milk has eight grams of protein for 130 calories. Hatanaka recommends adding a few tablespoons of a low-sugar granola for some whole grains.
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The popular Italian appetizer also makes a great energy-boosting snack. Slice one medium tomato and one-ounce fresh mozzarella, then drizzle it with a little balsamic vinegar. If you’re feeling extra fancy, add some chopped herbs. The fat and protein in the cheese make this a long-lasting snack, and a little bit of carbohydrate from the tomato will give you a boost.
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Peanut butter + banana
The PB-banana combo is classic for a reason. Hatanaka suggests halving a banana lengthwise and sandwiching a tablespoon of peanut butter in between. Or, you can just dip the banana into the PB as you go.
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Whole-wheat english muffin + fried egg
If you’re looking for a meal-like snack, fry an egg in a nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray, then sandwich it between a toasted English muffin. The whole thing runs you less than 200 calories, and packs plenty of protein, fiber, and healthy carbs.
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Popcorn is a 100 percent whole-grain snack, says Guy. It’s carbohydrate-rich with enough healthy fiber to keep the energy stream steady. Three cups of low-fat microwave popcorn has 120 calories and two and a half grams fat, and you can bulk things up a little bit by adding a tablespoon of chopped peanuts.
Quinoa + feta + red pepper salad
When it comes to whole grains, quinoa is a total superstar. Make a big batch all at once, then when you need a little something, combine half a cup cooked quinoa with one ounce feta and half a chopped red pepper. Drizzle it all with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt, and you have a snack that’ll power you through the afternoon.
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Oatmeal + strawberries
Oatmeal is a great source of soluble fiber, which packs heart-healthy benefits along with sustained energy. Guy loves snacking on half a cup rolled oats, cooked in milk or water, and topped with a few chopped strawberries.
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Mango chia pudding
This one takes a little planning, but it’s worth it. Mix two tablespoons chia seeds with a half cup of milk or almond milk and two tablespoons chopped dried mangoes, then let it sit in the fridge for at least three hours and up to four days. The seeds will expand and give the concoction a pudding-like texture, while also adding fiber and fat.
Getty ImagesMichael Marquand
Tzatziki + whole-wheat pita
Tzatziki is a Middle Eastern sauce made with strained plain yogurt, cucumber, onion, olive oil, and herbs. Find it at your local supermarket or make a batch of this recipe to eat all week. Cut a small whole-wheat pita in triangles, then use ‘em to scoop up a quarter cup of tzatziki.
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Blending one cup of chopped frozen fruit or berries with a container of plain Greek yogurt is a great on-the-go energizing snack, says Guy. Add a teaspoon of nut butter if you’re extra hungry.
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Hummus + cucumber slices
Chickpeas are an excellent complex carbohydrate source, says Guy, and they also pack a little protein. Buy a container of hummus, or blend a can of chickpeas with some olive oil and tahini to make your own, then use a quarter cup as a dip for cucumber slices or veggies.
Getty ImagesInti St. Clair
Peas + hard-boiled egg + mayo
Another great source of complex carbohydrates, according to Guy: green peas. Defrost a quarter-cup of frozen peas and mix them with a chopped hard-boiled egg, a teaspoon of mayonnaise, and whatever spices or herbs you like. Season with salt and pepper for a unique savory snack.
Getty ImagesLisa Marie Thompson
Sliced mango + shredded coconut
In need of a sweet treat but want to steer clear of added sugar? Slice up one small fresh mango, then sprinkle it with one to two tablespoons unsweetened shredded coconut. You’ll get fun tropical flavor, plus maximal energy for minimal calories.
Getty ImagesPhilippe Desnerck
Banana “nice cream” + pistachios
If you’ve been on the internet anytime in the last five years, you probably know about “nice cream,” which is made by blending frozen banana chunks in a food processor until they take on a soft serve-like consistency. Top one blended banana with two tablespoons chopped pistachios for a quick snack that’s got plenty of healthy carbs and fats.
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