Several of you wrote in with a variation of the following question for last month’s “Ask a Nutrition Question” challenge:

What is a good afternoon snack that would increase energy to help me get through the afternoon?

For many people, especially those of us that sit at a desk all day, the afternoon slump is a real, daily struggle. It’s not just that we aren’t getting enough sleep at night or that we’re mentally ready to be done working for the day; the dip in energy that most people experience in the afternoon has a true physiological basis. The level of cortisol, a hormone in our body that makes us feel more alert, naturally drops in the afternoon. Body temperature also plateaus. Together, that means many of us are daydreaming about taking a siesta rather than focusing on work or doing anything productive.

However, that doesn’t mean you’re destined to be a zombie from 2-4pm. Good nutrition is one of the important ways to fight afternoon fatigue.

Start with a healthy lunch. Not skipping lunch is crucial, but not eating too much, is also key.  Having an overfull belly means decreased energy as your body works hard to process and digest all that food. So, be mindful as you eat lunch, listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, and try eating until you’re about 80% full, instead of 110% full.

Also pay attention to the foods that you’re choosing. A lunch that is high in carbohydrates, particularly refined carbs, can produce a spike in blood sugar, followed by a dramatic drop that results in feeling tired, and probably hungry again. Instead, make sure to include a good source of protein and some healthy fats. For example, if you’re used to eating a sandwich that includes two slices of bread, a slice or two of meat and little else, try using one slice of bread, then load it up with more meat, more veggies, avocado, and a little salad dressing. Or consider a salad topped with roasted chicken or beans, or dinner leftovers.

Healthy afternoon snacks that include protein & fiber can also help. Protein takes longer than carbohydrate to digest, so it provides more sustained energy. Fiber also keeps blood sugar levels more stable. If the vending machine frequently beckons you in the afternoon, pack one of these snacks instead:

  • Part-skim mozzarella cheese stick with an apple
  • Hummus & fresh veggies (carrots, zucchini sticks, celery, cucumbers)
  • Edamame
  • Roasted chickpeas (one of my personal favorite snacks lately! Check out the simple recipe here)
  • Greek yogurt w/granola
  • Cottage cheese w/sunflower seeds
  • Granola bar (KIND, Lara, or other low-sugar bar)
  • Banana with peanut butter
  • Jerky (low-sodium)
  • Trail mix
  • Pistachios
  • Air-popped popcorn sprinkled with nutritional yeast
  • Tuna salad with whole grain crackers

Finally, although it’s very tempting to reach for a coffee or other caffeinated beverage to get you through the afternoon, resist! Caffeine in the late afternoon can disrupt sleep at night, which leaves you more tired the next day, which then makes that afternoon slump even more pronounced, and a nasty cycle can begin to gain momentum. Many caffeinated beverages also contain a lot of sugar which will give you a brief boost of energy, followed by a crash in blood sugar, which leaves us feeling even lower.

Hopefully the nutrition tips above will help you feel more energized, but you know what else helps tremendously with an afternoon slump? Get moving! Working out during your lunch hour, taking a brief walk outside, or even a 5 minute stretch break can improve oxygen levels to your brain and make you feel more alert and invigorated. Try it. The next time that you are feeling drowsy at work, stand up. Walk to the restroom on another floor. Or do some office stretches here with Neal (scroll down to Office Stretches and Office Stretches Part 2).

Here’s to taking back your afternoon!


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