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3rd Jan 2024

Foods & Nutrients for Energy

Posted by Melanie Winter

The food and drinks we eat provide us with energy. The energy content varies depending on the type of food, such as fat, carbohydrate or protein. Our bodies make energy from food in a process called cellular respiration.

Cellular respiration is like the engine that powers our cells. Imagine food, like glucose, as the fuel that goes into this cellular engine. The process happens in different stages:

  • First, glucose is broken down, producing a bit of energy.
  • Then, the broken-down product enters the mitochondria (the powerhouse of our cells), where it goes through more reactions in the citric acid cycle, releasing more energy.
  • Lastly, a chain reaction occurs in the mitochondria's inner membranes, creating a lot of energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
  • This ATP is the energy currency cells use to perform all their activities, from moving and growing to repairing and reproducing. In essence, cellular respiration transforms food into energy that keeps our cells and bodies running smoothly.
  • Without B vitamins, the chemical reactions to make or use ATP can’t occur.

Understanding B Vitamins

B vitamins are a group of 8 water soluble vitamins essential for different metabolic processes. B vitamins have a direct impact on energy levels, cell metabolism and brain function. The B-group or B-complex makes up 8 of the 13 essential vitamins our body needs. Water soluble means they dissolve in water and can’t be stored in our body and need to be consumed in our diet.

What are natural sources of B vitamins?

B vitamins are mostly found in animal products such as meats, fish, chicken and dairy products. Other sources include whole wheat bread, nuts, yeast and green leafy vegetables.

Should I take a vitamin B supplement?

Some people on restricted diets like vegans or those with gastrointestinal problems that affect absorption may have difficulty getting enough B vitamins. Veganscan particularly be low in B12 and are advised to take a B12 supplement. People planning on becoming pregnant should take B9 (folate) at least one month before conception to prevent foetal neural tube defects.

Also, the ability to absorb vitamin B12 decreases with advanced age, so B12 supplementation may be necessary. Besides B12, though, taking B vitamins as a complex can assure you have a balance of all the B vitamins and won't mask a deficiency in one of the others by taking them as single B vitamins.

What are the B vitamins that make up the B complex?

  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine) helps convert glucose to energy and affects nerve function. Deficiencies can occur in countries where the diet staple is white rice. In Western countries, deficiency is caused by excess alcohol intake or poor diet. Food sources include whole grains, beans, nuts, sunflower seeds, pork and beef.
  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) helps vision, skin health and energy production; deficiency is rare but might be linked to excess alcohol or in people who don’t consume milk products. B2 can turn your urine yellow, but this is harmless and temporary and just means it’s been digested. Food sources include almonds, mushrooms, and wild rice.
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin) is essential for helping the body convert carbohydrates, fat, and alcohol into energy. It also supports skin health and the digestive and nervous systems. Again, people who have high alcohol intake or eat primarily corn can be at risk of deficiency. Legumes, peanuts, wheat bran, and fish are all sources of vitamin B3.
  • Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) is necessary for breaking down carbohydrates, proteins, fats and alcohols into energy and producing red blood cells and steroid hormones. Deficiency is rare as it occurs in many foods. Vitamin B5 is found in sunflower seeds, peas, beans (except green beans), poultry and whole grains.
  • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) is also needed for protein and carbohydrate breakdown into energy. It also supports immune function, hormones, red blood cells and brain chemicals. Excess alcohol can cause deficiency as can being on the contraceptive pill or having thyroid disease. Whole grains, legumes, bananas, seeds, nuts and potatoes are good sources of vitamin B6.
  • Vitamin B7 (biotin) is needed for energy metabolism and the health of the nervous system, liver, hair and skin. Food sources of biotin include cheese, cauliflower, and eggs.
  • Vitamin B9 (folate or folic acid) is needed from red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body and is also needed for developing the growing foetus and DNA synthesis and cell growth. Women trying to conceive need a diet rich in folate for this. Since 2009, all bread sold in Australia has been fortified with folic acid. Excess folic acid intake can also mask a deficiency in B12. Folic acid is found in fresh green leafy vegetables, broccoli, mushrooms, legumes, nuts, and fortified cereals.
  • Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin) helps maintain nerve cells, mental ability, red blood cell production and energy production. Vitamin B12 works closely with folate, and they depend on each other to work effectively. Food sources of vitamin B12 include egg yolk, fish, beef, milk, and cheese.

Coenzyme Q10: the energy catalyst

Coenzyme Q10 is a vitamin-like fat-soluble substance found in the body that helps generate energy by making ATP. CoQ10 is also an antioxidant as it can reduce fats' oxidation at the cell membrane where energy is produced. Organs with high metabolic rates, such as the heart, kidney and liver, have the highest concentrations of CoQ10.

Ubiquinol is the reduced and active version of CoQ10, and ubidecarenone, its oxidized and not as active form, can convert back and forth in the body. While both forms coexist within the body, ubiquinol is the most abundant.

Low levels of CoQ10 can be related to advancing age, certain medications like statins, and certain genetic conditions.

Foods high in CoQ10 include eggs, fatty fish, organ meats, nuts and poultry.

Foods that boost energy naturally

Foods rich in B vitamins:

  • Dark leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes for B-complex vitamins

Foods containing Coenzyme Q10:

  • Fatty fish, organ meats, whole grains, and some fruits and vegetables

Lifestyle factors and energy levels

Other factors such as a balanced diet, sleep, exercise, and reducing stress can be important in regulating energy levels.

  • Making sure you have adequate protein, plus fresh vegetables, fruits, good fats, and wholegrains in your diet is important for energy levels.
  • Exercise allows us to reduce stress and helps stimulate the growth and efficiency of our mitochondria, the powerhouses in our cells that produce energy.
  • Sleep allows our body and mind to refresh and recharge. Most adults need 7 hours, and children and teenagers need more. Insufficient sleep can lead to poor focus, delayed reactions, mood swings and other problems.
  • Prolonged stress can affect sleep and lead to reduced energy levels and chronic fatigue.

Key Takeaways

  • Energy is affected by a number of factors
  • Foods high in B vitamins and CoQ10 are natural ways to boost your energy
  • Sleep, an overall healthy diet, exercise and stress reduction are also ways to ensure optimal energy levels 

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