Does your energy plummet in the middle of the afternoon? If the answer is "yes" as you reach for another cup of coffee to ride the energy roller coaster back up, it could help to understand a bit about why lunch choices can cause a dive in energy. The food you eat for lunch can have a huge impact on your p.m. plans. If you eat meat with lunch—especially red meat—you may need to be more mindful of what happens in your digestion system. Because certain eating habits can help you ward off fatigue, and others can cause lethargy and fatigue.
Here's why your lunch choices matter.
The optimal menu choice for post-lunch pep is dependent on how foods break down during digestion to give us energy. And unfortunately, for the average busy American, lunch often consists of protein and processed complex carbs—maybe bagels, buns, bread, or pasta. The hardest foods to digest are animal proteins, and red meat is slowest of all to break down. And when complex carbs or "starches" are eaten with animal protein, they turn to glucose to enter the bloodstream for energy, while the proteins are used to repair and build muscle.
The energy drop occurs with the digestion of fast (carbs) and slow (protein) foods together. Proteins need a slow digestive process (think predators like lions, napping in the shade after gorging on a fresh kill) and complex carbohydrates break down faster for a "lunch and go" lifestyle. Here's what happens when you eat red meat: 52 percent of the calories in meat are protein, and the rest is fat. Processed meats have a much higher percentage of fat and the fat takes a lot of your body's energy to digest, leaving you feeling like you can't keep your eyes open, just when you need focus in the busy afternoon. And so, if you only have half an hour for lunch, carbs and vegetables are good healthy choices to prevent the post-lunch coma.
How much meat do you really need in your diet?
Most people see red meat as just protein and a daily requirement; however, there is much misinformation associated with the nutritional requirements for meat. In truth, it does provide many nutrients, but like everything else, you need to keep in mind how much you actually need. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends around 18 ounces of cooked weight meat per week. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends consuming no more than an average of 1.8 ounces of red meat per day.
The rest of our daily protein should be from non-meat food sources. The body needs nine essential amino acids for health, and since we can't make these in our bodies they must be consumed. Animal-sourced protein has a complete supply of these amino acids. Plants are incomplete but can be easily combined with other foods like nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to get the full range of amino acids required.
How do I hack my lunch for optimal afternoon energy?
A good example of an energy-conscious lunch is a combination of foods for sustained release of energy throughout the afternoon. Bean burgers, quinoa, salads, seeds, vegetables, lentils, nuts, and whole grains are great choices that supply your body with all it needs for an active afternoon. You can include lighter proteins like dairy, eggs, or fish, but definitely leave sugar, red meats, and the simple carbohydrate off your plate to avoid the afternoon energy roller coaster.