Person pouring milk over breakfast cereal to enjoy food for energy

Foods that give you energy

Medically reviewed on April 25, 2023 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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Whether you’re feeling sluggish or trying to create a personalized diet plan, you might be looking for foods that can give you energy. Technically speaking, most foods provide energy. [1] So, if you’re wondering “does protein gives you energy,” the answer is yes. Proteins, carbohydrates, and fats are all converted into ATP, the chemical energy carrier in your body. And cells use ATP to perform many functions.

But, are some foods better energy sources than others? Will some foods make you feel more energized?

In this guide, we’re exploring foods that give you energy—we’ll break down how your body metabolizes food into energy and which foods might make you feel more energized.

How does your body make energy?

Before we get into a more detailed list of foods that give you energy, let’s zoom in on metabolism: the chemical reactions that break food down into useful energy for cells and biological processes. [1]

Metabolism is complex—multiple organs and cell types play a role in the countless chemical reactions needed to turn food into energy. To keep it relatively simple, we’ll explore the process in three general phases: [1]

Metabolism phase 1

During the first phase of metabolism, your digestive system breaks down complex macromolecules—the building blocks of all food products—into simpler molecules. What does that process look like?

  • Complex proteins break down into oligopeptides (amino acid chains) and free amino acids. Without this breakdown, the body couldn’t absorb proteins (making the rest of the steps in metabolism impossible). [1]
  • Complex carbohydrates (sugars) break down into monosaccharides and disaccharides.1 Monosaccharides (glucose, fructose, and galactose) are sugars in their simplest form: they’re easily digestible and can provide energy almost immediately. Disaccharides (lactose, maltose, and sucrose), on the other hand, are made up of two monosaccharides, and thus they require further breakdown to release useful energy. [2]
  • Lipids (fats) break down into glycerol and free fatty acids. Glycerol (sometimes called “glycerin”) is a primary energy source for the body. When you eat more calories than your body needs, it stores the energy for later in the form of glycerol and free omega-3 fatty acids (which form body fat). [3]

All three of these processes fall under the umbrella of digestion. [1]

Metabolism phase 2

Digestion is critical, but it only produces about 0.1% of the energy your body uses. [1] The vast majority of energy production takes place in Phase 3, but before your body can start that phase, all of the compounds produced in Phase 1 must oxidize. [1]

During oxidation, either electrons or hydrogen atoms are separated from each compound. Oxidation transforms all of the compounds above into just a few substances, including [1]:

  • Water
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Acetyl coenzyme A
  • Oxaloacetate
  • Alpha-oxoglutarate

The most prevalent of these compounds, by far, is acetyl coenzyme A. [1] But they’re all critical to metabolism.

Metabolism phase 3

There’s a better name for Phase 3: the Krebs cycle.1 To keep it simple, two important things happen during the Krebs cycle:

  1. Acetyl coenzyme A and oxaloacetate bond to form citrate—an energy-dense compound that powers the rest of the Krebs cycle. [1]
  2. The rest of the compounds above release protons, which move through the mitochondria of individual cells. These protons combine with electrons in the mitochondria to produce ATP (and other energy-dense compounds). [1]

Cells can break down ATP to release energy—energy used to perform a myriad of functions that keep your body running.

Foods that give you energy

It’s important to remember that most of all of the foods you eat are converted to energy via metabolism. That’s why it’s important to eat a balanced diet—your body needs all of the compounds described in the previous section to function properly.

Let’s break down just a few of the more energy-boosting foods.

1. Fruits

While each individual fruit offers a unique array of nutrients, let’s focus on a few common compounds found in many fruits that support energy production: [4]

  • Potassium – Apricots, prunes, raisins, bananas, and tomatoes are all excellent sources of potassium. [5] Potassium is critical to cellular energy production: in its ionic form (K+), it helps maintain the electrical charge of the fluid membrane inside of cells. Electron exchange is a key factor in ATP production, so maintaining proper electric charges is paramount. [5]
  • Vitamin C – While red bell peppers (perhaps surprisingly) offer the highest concentration of vitamin C available in a food product, oranges are a close second. [6] Vitamin C plays a key role in protein metabolism—just one of the many processes critical to energy production.
  • Folate (vitamin B) – Sometimes called folic acid, folate is a B vitamin found in tomatoes, oranges, papayas, bananas, and other fruits (as well as meat and vegetable sources). [7] Folate is an important coenzyme in amino acid metabolism; as amino acids can provide energy to the body when lipid and carbohydrate sources are limited. [8]

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2. Vegetables

Like fruits, vegetables can also give you a more sustained energy boost and may support healthy weight loss. Many vegetables also contain vitamin C, potassium, and folate, but many vegetables also bring something unique to the table: vitamin A. [9]

While it’s also available in meat and dairy products, you can find vitamin A in: [9]

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Carrots
  • Broccoli
  • Squash

While it was previously assumed that Vitamin A primarily supported immune function and cell growth, it also plays a key role in mitochondrial processes—the reactions that produce ATP.

One study discovered that, when deprived of retinol (a form of vitamin A), mitochondria slowed to resting levels of ATP production. [10] Without retinol, mitochondria could still make ATP, but not efficiently. In this experiment, mitochondria returned to a higher energy output once retinol was reintroduced to the system.

3. Complex carbohydrates

While proteins (and the amino acids that constitute them) can be used to make ATP, lipids and complex carbohydrates are the most important sources for energy production. [10]

Above, we discussed how complex carbohydrates are broken down into simpler sugars (monosaccharides and disaccharides) like glucose, fructose, and sucrose. [1] But let’s zoom in on glucose—one of the most powerful ingredients the body uses to make ATP.

Glucose is one of many simple sugars broken down from complex carbohydrates during digestion. [1] It’s converted into ATP by the mitochondria in a process called “glycolysis”, which breaks down glucose into usable compounds that merge with ions in the mitochondria to form ATP. [11] From one glucose molecule, the mitochondria can produce four ATP molecules—that’s a lot of energy.

4. Caffeine

There are two reasons why caffeine might make you feel more energetic:

  • It’s a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant – As one of the most widely-consumed stimulants around the globe, it’s likely that caffeine is a part of your morning routine. [12] By attaching to adenosine receptors in the brain (instead of allowing adenosine to attach to those receptors), caffeine can make you feel awake and alert.
  • It can increase metabolic rate – For decades, evidence has suggested that caffeine intake can increase your metabolic rate—the efficiency with which your body turns food into ATP. [13] Caffeine can play a role in the production of phosphodiesterase, an enzyme that helps electrons and protons bind to compounds to form ATP.14

5. Proteins

As mentioned, the breakdown of proteins into amino acids have a role in cellular energy production.1 However, it is also mentioned that cells typically only use amino acids in energy production when other sources (lipids and carbohydrates) are low. [8]

One of the most important things to remember about metabolism and energy production is that almost every food product can play a role in your body’s healthy functioning—that’s why it’s so important to eat a balanced, varied diet.

After all, there are numerous scenarios in which your body might be low on carbohydrates or lipids for use in ATP production. Let’s examine two hypothetical scenarios in which your body might use amino acids from protein to make energy:

  • You’re on a restrictive diet__ – If you’re on a diet that restricts lipids or carbohydrates for any reason, your body will make energy from the food sources you provide; and, if you’re not eating lipids or carbs, you’re hopefully getting some protein.
  • You have dietary restrictions that make it difficult to eat a varied diet – If you have an ongoing dietary challenge that keeps you from eating a wide variety of foods (like Celiac disease, for instance), you might not consume as many lipids or carbohydrates as the average person. To keep your body’s processes moving, your cells will use protein as an energy source as a compensatory mechanism.

A balanced diet is critical for energy production

As you can see, your body requires food from a wide variety of sources to produce the energy it needs to function. But, if you think you’re eating a varied enough diet and you’re still feeling sluggish or low-energy, you might still be head-scratching.

If this is the case, consider speaking to a healthcare provider like a Registered Dietitian. Registered Dietitians are experts on food, nutrition, and the biological processes that produce energy. [15] They can help you create a customized nutrition plan that helps you meet your health goals (like feeling more energetic) while accommodating your unique dietary needs.

Learn more about your body’s energy needs with Everlywell

If you’re looking for foods that give you energy, you’re in luck—almost all food products provide chemical compounds that your body can use to make ATP (the main source of cellular energy). [1]

On your way to a happier and healthier lifestyle, you might have even more questions about nutrition, energy, and more. That’s where Everlywell comes in.

We offer a variety of resources for people looking for answers about their health. We connect users with licensed telehealth providers, offer convenient at-home testing collecting kits (including a food sensitivity test), and publish resources based on peer-reviewed scientific research to help you learn more about your body.

Over one million users trust Everlywell as they create (and crush) their health and wellness goals. Learn more about how we’re expanding access to quality care, materials, and information.

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