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Sugar, caffeine & alcohol – a trio of energy sappers

I’m not a fan of demonising any particular type of food. I genuinely think there is a time and place for eating cake and enjoying a glass of wine. At least that’s the philosophy I apply to my life! However, it can become a case of too much of a good (tasting) thing where sugar, caffeine and alcohol are concerned.

You don’t need me to tell you that it’s not good to have too much sugar, caffeine or alcohol in your diet. But how do these things impact your energy levels? And what are the more energy-friendly alternatives?

The white stuff

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate which is broken down quickly by the body to be used as energy. This kind of fast release energy causes a rapid increase in blood sugar levels and a corresponding surge in energy levels. This surge, however, is followed by a drop as the body scrambles to balance your blood sugar levels.

When your blood sugar levels are low, you may experience a host of symptoms including fatigue, poor concentration, irritability, nervousness, depression, sweating and headaches. When you add in the hunger that accompanies low blood sugar, it can be all too tempting to reach for yet another sugar fix to bring your blood sugar back up. Then a blood sugar (and energy level) rollercoaster is set in motion, which is not a good thing.

In order to have good energy levels, it’s important to try to balance your blood sugars. That means cutting back on simple sugars and choosing slower release carbohydrates such as oats, wholegrain bread, pasta and rice and vegetables. Foods that have a low glycaemic load (GL) are the best foods for keeping your blood sugar levels in check. You can find out about GL foods through a simple Google search.

What about fruit?

Fruit is high in simple sugars (called fructose) but it also contains fibre (usually in the skin). Fibre helps slow the release of sugars into the bloodstream and it also has other really important healthy benefits. Fruit is rich in micronutrients and phytochemicals, which are definitely good for your health and energy.

To avoid too much fructose, stick to 2-3 servings of fruit per day. Eat fresh fruit where possible and limit dried fruit to small amounts, as the sugars in dried fruit are very concentrated. If juicing or making smoothies, make sure the majority of your ingredients are vegetables with a smaller amount of fruit.

The low down on caffeine

Caffeine (found in coffee, tea, chocolate and some energy drinks) can also play havoc with your blood sugars and energy levels. While there are lots of studies proving that caffeine does some have some health benefits, it is also highly addictive. The more caffeine you consume, the more your body and brain become insensitive to its own natural stimulants. You then need more stimulants to feel normal. The recommended daily intake for caffeine for an adult is 400mg, reducing to 200mg for pregnant women.

How much caffeine is in your cuppa?

An average cup of black tea with milk contains around 47mg of caffeine
Green tea contains less caffeine than black tea with an average of 33mg per cup
The average cup of coffee has around 95mg of caffeine, but lots of factors can vary the caffeine content.

According to a 2018 report, a Costa flat white contains 277mg caffeine (eek!), whereas Nero’s has 86mg and Pret’s just 65mg.

Too much caffeine can make you feel jittery and it can disturb your sleep, especially if it’s consumed late in the day. Lack of sleep is a major contributor towards low energy. Caffeine also raises cortisol (a stress hormone) in your body. Too much cortisol is not a good thing as it can lead to blood sugar imbalance and diabetes, weight gain (especially around the middle) and it can suppress your immune system.

Having said all of this, I absolutely love coffee and I don’t think I could ever cut it out entirely. My advice is to stick to 1 or 2 cups of coffee a day and avoid it after midday if you find it affects your sleep. Don’t forget that tea also contains caffeine, so you need to factor it into your overall daily caffeine intake.

Alcohol

While you might feel really lively and chatty when you’re into your second glass of wine, alcohol is a major energy sapper, even in small amounts. All alcohol contains sugar (in varying amounts, depending on the type of alcohol) and so your body uses it in the same way as other sugars. Like other types of sugar, too much alcohol has a negative impact on your blood sugar levels, which can lead to the same blood sugar rollercoaster described above.

When you drink alcohol your body reacts to it as a toxin and it has to use a lot of energy to expel it from the body. Your liver has to work particularly hard to break down the alcohol and remove it from your body.

Alcohol can adversely affect your sleep quality. Even a small amount of alcohol in the evening can disrupt your your normal sleep cycles.

Alcohol also interferes with the way your body makes energy. When you’re metabolising, or breaking down alcohol, the liver can’t produce as much glucose, which means you have low levels of blood sugar. And it’s a diuretic, which means that it can lead to dehydration. There are, of course, lots of other health risks associated with drinking alcohol which I haven’t covered here.

Finally, alcohol is a very easy way to increase your calorie intake without adding much nutritional benefit. A standard 175ml glass of 12% wine contains 133 calories, a pint of 5% beer contains 239 calories and a double measure of gin contains 95 calories.

So if you are serious about improving your energy levels and/or reducing your calorie content to help with weight management, minimal alcohol consumption (or ideally none) is the best approach. You’ll also benefit your overall health.

Hang on, isn’t red wine healthy?

Red wine contains a phytonutrient called resveratrol which comes from the grape skin. Resveratrol is a powerful antioxidant and it’s the main reason some people believe that drinking red wine carries health benefits. However, it still contains alcohol and sugar.

Switches you can make:

Energising alternatives to sugar
Dark chocolate (minimum 80% cocoa), fresh fruit, nuts and seeds, hummus, nut butters, exercise

Energising alternatives to caffeine
Herbal teas, turmeric latte, fruit infusions, warm water with lemon and ginger, exercise

Energising alternatives to alcohol
Tonic and fresh lime, zero alcohol beer (a client of mine swears by Becks blue) and spirits such as Seedlip gin, iced tea, exercise

If you’re keen to improve your diet but you feel like you don’t know where to start, check out my Elevate Your Energy Online Programme. Not only do you get my Energise Nutrition and Recipe Ebooks but you also get a 4 week Meal Plan. It also includes Elevate Fitness which has effective and easy to follow video workouts.

Photo by Rob Sarmiento on Unsplash

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