The Best ‘Energy’ Foods

I transitioned myself over to plant-based eating over 7 years ago now. First off I started out by cutting out dairy, eggs, and fish. Last to go was oils. I started out eating plenty of green leafy vegetables (mostly silverbeet and kale purchased from the rather wonderful Otago Farmers Market down next to the train station on Saturdays) as recommended by Dr Esselstyn, but otherwise what I was eating was pretty much unchanged from what I was having before as a ‘vegetarian’, minus of course the animal products, oil, and with more of an emphasis on whole grains.

It all seemed to go quite smoothly initially, but fairly soon I noticed that I was often becoming hungry between meals, especially lunch and dinner. I also noticed that my energy levels weren’t brilliant. In the mornings though, I was having a bowl of wholegrain oats that I threw in the microwave with a half cup or so of frozen blueberries. I noticed that after this I’d get through the morning really well. I’d never feel hungry again until it was well time for lunch anyhow, which was fortunate because at Med school you’d never really know exactly when this was going to be. By this point fortunately also I’d been reading a bit of Dr McDougall’s work as well.

Dr McDougall really emphasises the importance of ‘starch’: foods like whole grains (brown rice, oats, wholemeal pasta, quinoa, barley), starchy veggies like potatoes, kumara, and pumpkin, and beans and legumes. In fact, he loves it so much that one of his best-known and most recent books is called ‘The Starch Solution’, and has a potato on the cover. Dr McDougall explains that ‘every large, successful population’ of people since the dawn of civilisation has relied on a ‘starch’ as their primary source of energy. For example, my own ancestors from Scotland relied heavily on oats. The Irish have the potato, in Asia, rice is a hugely important staple food, and the Maori brought the kumara with them all the way from Hawaiki to New Zealand. Dr McDougall in fact suggests that about 70% of any meal should be a starch, and certainly feels it should form the basis of any plant-based diet.

So I worked out pretty quickly that I needed to increase the amount of starch I was eating in order to increase my energy intake and get me through the day. I have based most of what I eat most of the time around one or more starches ever since those early few months and since then I’ve not had any problems with my energy levels while eating plant-based, in fact, I feel like my energy is better than it ever was.

What I have noticed is that it is so, so common for people to do exactly the same thing as I did when they start off eating plant-based. It’s too easy to think mostly about what we are cutting out and focus too heavily on the fruits and vegetables – after all, these are what we’re told are good for us, and what we imagine someone who’s ‘plant-based’ eats. But although they provide us with plenty of amazing nutrients, fruits and vegetables are simply way too low on energy to power us through the day.

So unfortunately what often seems to end up happening is that people feel hungry and tired, just like I did. Perhaps because lack of energy in the diet is such a foreign concept, they start to wonder whether a plant-based way of eating is lacking in nutrients like protein or iron, or thinking that it’s just not going to work for them at all. Some may end up getting the energy they require from high-fat plant foods like nuts and seeds and avocados, and I do suspect this is one of the reasons why people become so attached to avocado in particular. But the best way to get your energy and still feel and look great is simply to add more starch.

At each meal you eat, think about where the starch is – if it’s not in there, chances are you’ll be hungry shortly after. This is why the standard salad isn’t a good meal idea. The reason it used to work is because that oil-based dressing was the energy equivalent of a couple scoops of ice-cream! Instead add some beans, potatoes, rice, or falafel. Choose a few starches or ‘energy foods’ that you like, or even just the one. Most of what I eat for energy is pasta, I’ve always really enjoyed it (even when I was a kid). I’ve actually found rice doesn’t keep me going long enough. But what works for you will depend on what you like eating and of course your own metabolism and activity levels. If you love potatoes or kumara then go with them. Over time you’ll work out what you enjoy, and very soon you’ll be snacking much less and feeling energised!

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