I Eat Because... I Need Energy

Protein powder, granola bars, sports drinks, oh my! If you're eating for energy, chances are you use snacks and drinks as an instant solution to getting through your morning workout, your afternoon meeting, or even the entire day.

Quick energy fixes that can be eaten on the go are becoming a staple in British shops and cupboards. But we want to let you in on a secret…

All food gives you energy.

And it's the calories – that so many people try to avoid – that give your muscles the fuel to get through the day. The trick is to find a source that fits in with your lifestyle, helps you achieve your goals, and provides a nutritional balance.

With help from nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed, we've investigated the calories and contents in different meals and compared 'energy boosting' foods to everyday alternatives, to help you decide how to make those calories work for you.

Eating to energise

Eating for energy is the third most common reason people eat: 29% of our survey respondents said they mainly eat to boost energy levels. But the real question is, which foods are we choosing?

Products that market themselves as fuel solutions have become increasingly popular in Britain:

£62.13m
The retail sales value of energy and nutrition bars in 2012
£126.63m
Forecast retail sales value of energy and nutrition bars in 2017
679m
Litres of energy drinks in the UK in 2016 consumed
99%
Growth in sales volume of sports protein bars in Western Europe (2010-2015)

But are we making the right choices?

For decades, the dieting industry has been trying to convince us calories are something we should run and hide from. And now it's time to stop in our tracks – calories are the best way of understanding food, and how to use it to fuel our bodies and provide energy.

Charlotte tells us how to figure out what calories we need as individuals, to find a food solution that works best for you.

"A calorie is the measurement of how much energy is stored in a certain amount of food. Although food is much more than just calories alone, it's important, at least at a population level, to have recommendations around how many calories we should eat a day to act as general guidance.

However, on an individual level, it's important to take into account the differences that individuals may face when it comes to calorie needs."

Charlotte Stirling-Reed - Nutritionist

"The basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the amount of energy needed to keep us alive when we aren't even active at all. So that's the energy needed to help us breathe, grow, think, and to keep our heart and organs functioning effectively. This accounts for anything between 40% and 70% of your body's total energy requirements. Any energy consumed above the BMR is used for exercise or stored as fat mass."

Charlotte Stirling-Reed - Nutritionist

"If you're very active you may need a lot more calories than someone who lives a very sedentary life and it's a good idea to take this into account when making food choices. For those who are very active, they may need to seek out more energy-dense foods to help to fuel them throughout the day."

Charlotte Stirling-Reed - Nutritionist

"It's also important to look at the bigger picture when it comes to food too, to make sure you're choosing balance and variety when it comes to where your calories come from. We mustn't forget that our bodies need vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, and fats too."

Charlotte Stirling-Reed - Nutritionist

A quick study of macronutrients

To better understand food and how to make healthy choices, we need to know about nutrients and how they affect our bodies.

Food is made up of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). As our bodies process food, these macronutrients and micronutrients are broken down and used in different ways to help our organs function.

Healthy eating is all about getting the balance right and choosing foods that contain nutrients which will help to grow, repair, and provide energy.

Get to know your macros

Proteins

How to make the best choice for you

Food is food, and for many, just getting the calories needed to get through the day is enough. However, there are food choices that are more nutritionally balanced than others – even when the calorie content is similar.

We've compared two different versions of every meal – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – to help you understand how calories work in line with nutrients and a well-balanced diet. Compare the meals below and discover Charlotte's insights into the meals.

  • Breakfast
  • Lunch
  • Dinner
Porridge with soya milk, banana, peanut butter vs
Granola with yoghurt, honey, and juice
Food for thought
Oatmeal
Energy
397
kcal
Fat
13.1g
2.2g sat.
Carbs
53.1g
Protein
13.2g
Granola
Energy
639
kcal
Fat
9g
3g sat.
Carbs
71g
Protein
21g

Oatmeal:

"This is one of my favourite breakfasts as oats really are a great food. A source of wholegrains, protein, and fibre means that they contain plenty of goodness and help you to feel full in the morning, too. They are also such a versatile ingredient, meaning that you can really personalise your breakfast! Adding some peanut butter allows some extra protein and minerals, such as iron."

Granola:

"In comparison to the oats, this is a breakfast quite high in sugar and a lot of the sugar is going to be 'free sugars', which the government is encouraging us to reduce in our diet.

Try switching the yoghurt for a plain or natural yoghurt with no added sugar, and switch the honey for a spoon of peanut butter. Remember there is no problem with having this for breakfast, but if you're having it every day, you're going to be eating a lot more sugar than recommended!"

Charlotte Stirling-Reed - Nutritionist

Turkey sandwich and salad vs
BLT, energy drink, crisps
Food for thought
Sandwich
Energy
448.5
kcal
Fat
18g
Carbs
42.9g
Protein
22.9g
Crisps
Energy
574
kcal
Fat
22.2g
3.6g sat.
Carbs
66.1g
Protein
26.3g

Sandwich:

"This is a great lunch option, and the wholegrain bread means there will be some fibre in this lunch option, which would have been much lower if white bread was used. The use of the avocado adds some healthy fats to the dish and along with the salad, contributes towards your 5-a-day."

Crisps:

"This option is higher in added sugar as a lot will be coming from the "energy drink" being used as an afternoon boost. There is also less fibre, and a fair amount more fat than in the option above. Making your own sandwich for lunch allows you to understand what ingredients are being used, and make the right nutritional choices for you – though if convenience is important, a pre-packaged sandwich is fine when you need it!"

Charlotte Stirling-Reed - Nutritionist

Salmon, couscous, vegetables vs
Steak and peppercorn sauce, rice, coleslaw
Food for thought
Salmon
Energy
360.9
kcal
Fat
11.6g
1.5g sat.
Carbs
32.6g
Protein
31.4g
Steak
Energy
603
kcal
Fat
37.2g
15g sat.
Carbs
41.8g
Protein
25.5g

Salmon:

"This meal contains at least three portions of your 5-a-day, which is a fab way to enjoy your evening meal. I always recommend people try and boost their fruit and vegetable intake by making the most of portions in their evening meal.

Salmon is also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for heart health and which many of us don't get enough of through a traditional British diet. Recommendations suggest that we should be eating two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily, and so this meal helps tick that off your nutrition recommendations."

Steak:

"As there aren't so many vegetables, there is less fibre in this meal. Adding a few extra vegetables on the side could really help to boost fibre and nutrient contents. This dinner also contains almost double the calories, but isn't likely to be quite as filling as the salmon with multiple vegetables – this is a great choice for a special meal, but perhaps not every day."

Charlotte Stirling-Reed - Nutritionist

"Learn to love good foods": A nutritionist's favourite foods

When you're eating for energy, whatever your long-term goals, overthinking choices can turn food into a chore. Luckily, there are plenty of go-to choices everyone can enjoy, and they're so quick and easy that eating them is nothing but pure joy.

Food expert Charlotte offers us a final word on how to enjoy food when you're eating for energy, and recommends her favourite snacks for a nutritionally balanced energy boost at any time of day:

"I'm an absolute foodie and I try to sit down to enjoy the foods I eat every day. I suggest that everyone avoids heavily restricting all the time, while trying to be mindful of ways you can boost the nutritional content of meals whilst watching levels of sugar and salt. One of the ways I always try to look at my meals is by checking how balanced they are:

  • Do they contain some wholegrains?
  • Do they contain a couple of portions of my 5-a-day?
  • Do they contain some protein such as beans, lentils, eggs, meat, or fish?
  • Do they contain some dairy or fortified alternatives?

If you're ticking all of these off at most of your meals, you're doing well. Then it's just about working out what portion sizes work for you (so you're not always overeating or feeling hungry after dinner) and if you need to make some sensible swaps to reduce levels of sugar or salt in your overall diet."

Read more

Charlotte Stirling-Reed - Nutritionist

"Here are some foods I'm always looking to add into my daily meals:

  • Nuts – I often snack on these or throw them into meals such as curries, stir-fries or salads.
  • Seeds – These are so great with breakfast or in smoothies and salads.
  • Oily fish – It's a good idea to try and include this once a week, try to opt for MSC certified fish!
  • Frozen berries – A versatile ingredient and full of antioxidants.
  • Oats – Contain beta glucan which has been shown to lower blood cholesterol also a whole grain and contains fibre.
  • Eggs – Full of minerals and is another versatile ingredient. Opt for free-range eggs when you can.
  • Frozen spinach – Another simple one to add into sauces, stews or even as a side with breakfast.
  • Water – Try to get your palate used to water rather than sugary drinks. After all, water is all we need to hydrate and drinking sugary drinks is not great for teeth!
  • Flaxseeds – An inexpensive source of fibre and great added to salads, smoothies, and overnight oats.

And don't underestimate the power of herbs and spices to replace salt and help you get the flavour of your dishes just right. It takes some experimenting but eventually you might feel happy to ditch the salt all together!"

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Charlotte Stirling-Reed - Nutritionist