Most of us experience low energy from time to time but some people seem to be tired all the time. Sometimes we know what the problem is. Lack of proper sleep is a common cause. But what if you’re getting your rest but still don’t have any oomph? It could easily be your diet. Eating right can be the key, not only to body composition and weight but to fixing that constant fatigue problem.

Exercise, rest and sleep are three sides of a triangle. When we’re doing each of them in the proper amounts and the right ways, our body responds with greater energy and resiliency to disease and injury. But when we let these things slide, we can find ourselves with barely enough energy to get off the couch.

In this article, we’ll look at the diet component of this triangle. Read on to find the secrets of the energy diet!

Our Body is a Complicated Machine

A simple steam turbine with only a handful of moving parts will run just fine on kerosene or any of a number of other slow burning fuels, but put that same kerosene in your very complicated, electronically controlled, fuel injected car and it won’t run (plus you’ll likely ruin your engine trying). It’s simply the wrong kind of fuel.

Our bodies require the right fuel at the right time to run with peak efficiency. This is why competitive athletes obsess about their pre-competition diets and meals. They’ve learned the hard way that the wrong fuel at the wrong time will have a very significant negative impact on their performance. But even if you’re not an athlete, what you eat, how much, and when will significantly impact your energy levels, moods, mental acuity, immune system, body composition and more.

The Right Mix of Fuels

So what’s the right mix? Foods come in three categories that we all recognize: carbs, proteins and fats (We won’t address alcohol, which is in a category of its own. We know it’s not healthy and it’s a very poor energy source). You may have seen the simple formula of 60/20/20. This means a diet that’s 60% carbs, 20% fats, and 20% proteins. Unfortunately, this is plain wrong on a number of different levels.

“Percentages are meaningless because it is the absolute amount of carbohydrate and protein that matters,” says Asker Jeukendrup, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the University of Birmingham in England and one of the world’s leading experts on the effects of different amounts of carbohydrate and protein intake on endurance performance. “How much you need depends on your goals and the amount of training you do.”

I would add to Dr. Jeukendrup’s statement. Your current body composition also matters. If you’re carrying an extra 10 kilos of fat you need to shed, the ratio of carbs/proteins/fats will be different than what you’ll need after you lose that fat. You’ll need more proteins and less carbs.

So, how do we figure it out? Fortunately, there are formulas that are accurate, but you’re going to have to do a little math.

Calculating Carb Intake

Dr. Jeukendrup recommends “from 5 to 10 grams per kilogram of body weight per day with training ranging from one hour per day to five hours or more”. You need more carbs the more active you are, so for most of us the lower end of this formula will work. For myself, when I’m working to shed fat, I adjust the carb intake even lower and replace those calories with lean proteins and some healthy fats. I also avoid simple carbs as much as humanly possible. This means no sugars or processed grains (bread, crackers, cake, etc).

Most of us think of bread, pasta, and desserts when we think of carbs, but there are plenty of healthy carbs found in foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, seeds and whole grains such as oats and barley. Carbs have three components; fiber, starch, and sugar. Sugar is a simple carb, while fiber and starch are complex carbs. For the most part, complex carbs are good, while simple carbs should be avoided.

So, follow Dr. Jeukendrup’s formula and make sure the carbs you ingest are healthy, complex carbs and you’re on the right track.

Calculating Protein Intake

For decades now, bodybuilders have followed the formula of 2.2 grams of protein per day per kilo of body weight, and higher if they are ‘cutting’ or shedding fat for a competition. Dr. Jeukendrup agrees that this is a good rule of thumb although he found in his studies that for very competitive athletes who are training hard (he studied cyclists), up to 3 grams per kilo per day was even more beneficial and resulted in improvements to performance.

Calculating Fat Intake

This is the easy one. There are fats, and mostly healthy ones, in protein foods such as meat, eggs, and nuts as well as some fats in complex carb foods as well. If you follow Dr. Jeukendrup’s formulas for carbs and proteins, and make healthy food choices, your body will be getting enough healthy fats without needing to do any math.

Meal Timing

Now that you know how to calculate the right ratio of carbs to proteins to fats, there is a second vital component to the energy diet you must follow. Small meals eaten every two to three hours will give you a constant level of energy. The traditional three square meals per day method that most of us grew up with will give you insulin spikes and sugar crashes, resulting in low energy and probably fat gain. Our bodies thrive on five to six small meals per day, especially when those meals contain the right mix of carbs, proteins, and fats.

In addition, breakfast should be your largest meal of the day, with meal sizes gradually tapering off until you eat a very small dinner several hours before going to bed. Don’t snack after dinner either. Your body doesn’t need calories at this time of day and anything you eat, especially high glycemic index foods, will simply be stored as fat.

If you would prefer a simple, easy-to-follow diet plan read Eating Right Simplified.