November/December 2021 Issue
Energy Foods: Energy Foods for Greater Stamina
By Dina Aronson, MS, RDN
Vol. 23, No. 9, P. 12
Many dietitians would agree there’s an energy crisis in America, and it has nothing to do with fossil fuels. The dearth of energy is among several of their clients and patients who feel overworked, overstressed, and overfatigued from dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the trials of everyday life. And as a result, they may be looking for a pill to pop, a tasty elixir, or specific types of foods or snacks to eat for an energy boost. And while there are no quick fixes, there are foods and snacks dubbed “energy foods” specifically formulated and marketed to consumers wanting more stamina.
Many of these foods and snacks contain simple, whole-food ingredients such as whole grains, nuts, and seeds, which naturally provide healthful sources of energy to the diet. These typically include less-refined sweeteners such as honey, fruit concentrate, or maple syrup, and may contain protein isolates. Some of these foods have a beneficial balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fiber to support a healthful diet but have no special formulations or functional ingredients. In addition, many of these products are marketed as “energy foods” because their ultraprocessed counterparts, which often are high in sugar, low in fiber, and contain refined carbohydrates, lead to swings in blood sugar and, ultimately, energy. Therefore, RDs often recommend whole food–based snacks over traditional vending machine options, as they’re just as convenient, reliable, portion controlled, and tasty while providing healthful sources of nutrients.
One such whole foods, energy-boosting brand is simplyFUEL, founded by Mitzi Dulan, RD, CSSD, sports nutritionist for the Kansas City Royals. Dulan, who makes several high-protein products, including Protein Balls in a variety of flavors, says, “The reason Protein Balls are an ideal energy food is because I make mine with a base of oats, peanut butter, honey, and protein powder. This provides long-lasting fuel that also can curb cravings using real food ingredients.”
Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT, and Tammy Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT, New York–based dietitians known as The Nutrition Twins and founders of the 21-Day Body Reboot, agree: “The best energy-boosting snacks will have a solid dose of both fiber and protein to keep energy levels on an even keel and prevent energy crashes. If a snack doesn’t have this satisfying combination, you’ll most likely also end up hungry soon after, and possibly craving a sugary snack in search of a quick pick-me-up.”
Stephanie Csaszar, MS, RD, CDN, a health and nutrition strategist in New York, agrees: “The concept of ‘energy foods’ often relates to a meal or snack’s macronutrient distribution and content. Easy store-bought options like overnight oats, dried bean snacks, and nut mixes provide longer-lasting energy from protein, fiber, and healthful fats vs foods with a lot of refined sugar, which might give you a quick energy fix but won’t last.”
“Energy” is a loaded term. Technically, it means “the ability to do work,” and of course anything with (kilo) calories, from broccoli to bonbons, provides energy. But as a marketing buzzword, “energy” is used to target the strength and vitality consumers want to optimally sustain mental and physical activity. Thus, the phrase “energy foods” is powerfully associated with vibrant health.
The ongoing quest for more energy among consumers is what’s fueling the growing trend in energy food products. According to HealthFocus International, a wellness market research firm, more than one-half of consumers are extremely or very concerned about tiredness/lack of energy, especially young adults aged 18 to 34 and those with children.1 Unsurprisingly, the younger demographic drives much of the trend in the United States; 66% of consumers aged 18 to 24 reported high interest in snacks that provide an energy boost.2
Of course, there’s no objective measure of having “more energy”; it’s a subjective state that’s more than just the absence of fatigue. It’s a mindset, tied to other factors such as mood, alertness, focus, clarity, response, physical movement, and athletic performance, particularly stamina and endurance.
To add to the confusion, consumers associate “energy” with a confluence of other health benefits. For example, when people were asked what the term “healthy” means in a 2021 survey conducted by the Hartman Group, a consumer behavior research firm, the top seven descriptions included “having energy for an active lifestyle” (44%), “leading a balanced lifestyle” (51%), “having strong immunity/ability to recover” (51%), and “being physically fit” (51%).3 As a product category, energy-boosting foods tend to overlap with other categories, such as better-for-you snacks, organic, and plant-based foods.
Based on the International Food Information Council’s 2020 Food and Health Survey, the desire to have more energy ranks second only to the desire to lose weight as a top sought-after health benefit, which in part explains the high demand for these foods. The survey also shows that “needing energy” is among the top 10 reasons for snacking—hence, the reason why energy snack foods are flying off store shelves.4
For example, sales of energy bars increased by $1.15 billion between 2014 and 2018, and the market is forecasted to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 6% between now and 2026.5,6
Current snack habits also may be a sign of the times. According to a recent study by the NPD Group, a market research firm focused on consumer trends, the quarantine resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a major increase in US snack food consumption, driven mainly by feelings of sadness or depression (representing a 37% increase) and boredom (accounting for a 33% increase). Snacks tended to be more indulgent in the early months of the pandemic but shifted toward more healthful options in recent months as people turn to improved lifestyle habits.7
In addition, the market has been flooded with functional foods to fuel the energy foods category. According to Statista, 44.5 million Americans consumed energy snacks and bars in 2020.8 And there are no signs of this trend slowing down. Within the next five years, energy-boosting foods, along with foods that enhance digestive health, will be among the largest and fastest-growing consumer trends, according to a consumer trends study conducted by the International Nut and Dried Fruit Council. By 2024, it predicts, the market size for products designed to increase energy will grow 50%.9
While whole foods and whole food–based snacks and bars are best to sustain energy throughout the day as part of a healthful diet, several other snacks claim to increase energy. These encompass a wide range of sweet, savory, and salty goodies that not only satisfy hunger and taste good but also offer functional ingredients designed specifically to boost energy and improve overall well-being—though not all of these products have evidence to back these claims.
One of the fastest-growing categories in the energy foods segment is newer, trendier bars and snacks that boast the following functional and whole-food ingredients said to offer an energy-boosting edge:
• Caffeine. Caffeine is indisputable as an energy booster, as it’s a central nervous system stimulant. It’s found in many functional ingredients, including tea leaves, yerba mate, cocoa beans, coffee beans, guarana, and kola nuts. No longer limited to beverages, caffeine and caffeine-containing ingredients are now found in cookies, chews, bars, balls, and chocolate. Fortunately, for the caffeine sensitive, these products are clearly labeled as containing caffeine and include the number of milligrams per serving.
But buyer beware: “Snacks with caffeine may give you a temporary burst of energy, but if the snack doesn’t also provide a source of nourishing and long-lasting fuel, we don’t recommend it,” The Nutrition Twins say. “After the caffeine wears off, you’ll come crashing down.”
• Ashwagandha. An adaptogen, ashwagandha helps the body adapt to stress by normalizing the cortisol response, according to some research. Two recent double-blinded, placebo-controlled studies, each with 60 participants, showed that after eight weeks of supplementation, those in the ashwagandha group experienced significantly reduced anxiety compared with those in the placebo group.10,11 Adaptogens may help people feel more energetic because they may help prevent the negative effects of a poor stress response, which tends to zap energy. Ashwagandha often is used as an ingredient in energy-enhancing proprietary blends.
• Mushrooms. Certain mushrooms are considered energy-boosting ingredients in foods and supplements. Cordyceps and lion’s mane, in particular, are varieties that hold some promise as performance enhancers, as they’re a good source of beta-glucan polysaccharides, the bioactive compounds responsible for the mushrooms’ beneficial effects. One study showed that cordyceps is associated with increased ATP production during exercise.12 Animal and human studies on the various health benefits of lion’s mane exist, but the jury is still out on its energy-boosting effects.13,14 Chaga is another mushroom used in functional blends, but research on its energy-boosting properties is scarce. However, mushrooms in general are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and, if light exposed, vitamin D, so RDs can recommend them as part of a healthful diet.
• Ginseng. Ginseng is an herb that has long been valued for its energy-enhancing properties. In fact, studies have shown it confers antifatigue effects.15 As with ashwagandha, ginseng is an adaptogen commonly found in functional ingredients used in some snack foods.
• Fermented foods. Fermented foods are excellent for gut health and are considered delicacies in their own right as well as functional ingredients. While they don’t directly affect energy levels, some evidence supports a link between gut health, mood, and energy.16,17
• Goji berries. Goji berries (Lycium barbarum) are rich in antioxidants, may stimulate metabolism, and provide other possible benefits.18 For example, one double-blinded, placebo-controlled study showed that the juice of the fruit helped improve focus, increased energy levels, and enhanced athletic performance.19
• Turmeric. A common ingredient in energy-boosting foods, turmeric has been extensively studied for its role in brain health and as a powerful adaptogen. Curcumin, the bioactive compound in the spice, has been shown in clinical trials to improve mood, lower fatigue scores, and ease symptoms of depression, benefits related closely to the perception of having more energy.20,21
• Cannabidiol (CBD). Depending on dosage, CBD can be used as an aid for relaxation and sleep but also to increase energy and focus. A low dose of CBD can act as a stimulant, while a high dose can have a sedative effect.22 Because the endocannabinoid system modulates mood, CBD taken at the proper dose at the right time can encourage focus and mental balance.23 CBD-containing foods display the dose on the package. If they don’t, RDs should advise clients not to purchase them.
While some packaged foods and snacks promoted as “energy foods” are healthful and there may be some benefit to consuming foods that contain functional ingredients, there isn’t enough evidence to recommend them to clients over whole foods.
It’s essential that dietitians tailor advice to the individuals and groups they educate. Busting myths is important, but not everyone is going to want to bake oat bars or be satisfied with a banana and peanut butter or an egg and an apple. It’s the job of RDs to provide education and make recommendations that are consistent with their clients’ health goals, budget, and preferences while supporting optimal health.
According to Hamden, Connecticut– based lifestyle medicine expert David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM, CEO and founder of Diet ID, a digital dietary assessment platform headquartered in Detroit, “High-quality diets can ‘boost’ energy as well as every other expression of general health. But, in general, the isolated benefit of some particular ‘superfood’ or nutrient is exaggerated in marketing, at the expense of what we reliably know makes the biggest difference of all: optimizing the overall quality of your dietary pattern.”
— Dina Aronson, MS, RDN, is director of nutrition programming at Diet ID, a digital health company on a mission to make diet a vital sign.
1. Sloan AE. The top 10 functional food trends. IFT website. https://www.ift.org/news-and-publications/food-technology-magazine/issues/2020/april/features/the-top-10-functional-food-trends. Published April 1, 2020. Accessed September 9, 2021.
2. Consumer interest in snacks that boost energy in the United States in 2020, by age group. Statista website. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1115185/demand-for-energy-boosting-snacks-by-age-us. Published April 2020. Accessed September 9, 2021.
3. The meaning of health & wellness in 2021: the consumer perspective continues to evolve. Hartman Group website. https://www.hartman-group.com/newsletters/1896757554/the-meaning-of-health-wellness-in-2021-the-consumer-perspective-continues-to-evolve. Published May 4, 2021. Accessed September 9, 2021.
4. 2020 Food and Health Survey. Food Insight website. https://foodinsight.org/2020-food-and-health-survey. Published June 9, 2020. Accessed September 9, 2021.
5. North America energy bar market – growth, trends, COVID-19 impact, and forecasts (2021-2026). Mordor Intelligence website. https://www.mordorintelligence.com/industry-reports/north-america-energy-bar-market. Accessed September 9, 2021.
6. United States energy bar market – growth, trends, COVID-19 impact, and forecasts (2021-2026). Mordor Intelligence website. https://www.mordorintelligence.com/industry-reports/united-states-energy-bar-market. Accessed September 9, 2021.
7. Mood matters when it comes to snacking and treating ourselves. NPD website. https://www.npd.com/news/press-releases/2021/mood-matters-when-it-comes-to-snacking-and-treating-ourselves. Published April 27, 2021. Accessed September 9, 2021.
8. U.S. population: do you eat energy/diet snacks and bars? Statista website. https://www.statista.com/statistics/276893/us-households-consumption-of-energy-diet-snacks-and-bars. Published November 2020. Accessed September 9, 2021.
9. INC consumer study finds energy boosting and digestive healthy foods among the fastest growing trends, with immune support expected to grow. International Nut & Dried Fruit website. https://www.nutfruit.org/industry/news/detail/inc-consumer-study-finds-energy-boosting-and-digestive-healthy-foods-among-the-fastest-growing-trends-with-immune-support-expected-to-grow. Published October 29, 2020. Accessed September 9, 2021.
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