Foods can keep you awake or make you sleepy

January 11, 1999

Perky foodsBy MEG H. PARTINGTON / Staff Writer

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

One simple solution to midday sluggishness is complex - carbohydrates, that is - paired with just enough protein.

Grab some crackers with peanut butter or a bagel with low-fat cream cheese instead of a candy bar and you'll feel rejuvenated longer, say area nutrition experts. They also recommend taking in smaller bits of nourishment throughout the day instead of fewer heavy meals.

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A hefty breakfast or lunch will force more blood to the gastrointestinal tract for digestion, leaving less for the brain, explains Jane Runyon, a registered dietitian at City Hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Lisa McCoy, a registered dietitian in Hagerstown, highly recommends starting the day with breakfast to increase attentiveness. If eating right after waking up does not appeal to you, she recommends doing so within a couple of hours.


Toast and jam alone may cause mid-morning sleepiness, but adding cereal and milk can counteract that effect, McCoy says. Other edibles that can increase alertness are bananas, orange juice or an English muffin topped with low-fat cheese, she says.

No one should go more than four or five hours without some refueling, Runyon says.

"They should eat, certainly," she says.

Good, well-balanced eating is the key to keeping that zip at any time during the day, says Karen George, a registered dietitian at The Chambersburg Hospital in Chambersburg, Pa.

Foods high in protein, like rich meats, are also high in tryptophan, an amino acid that was once used in sleep-inducing medication, says Dr. Lawrence Cheskin, author of "Losing Weight for Good" and an associate professor of human nutrition at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore.

A little protein

But some protein can provide a boost if paired with a carbohydrate, says McCoy. She recommends eating about one ounce of protein per meal, such as one egg, one tablespoon of peanut butter, one slice of cheese or one or two pieces of sandwich meat, depending on how thinly it is sliced.

Peanut butter, though it's high in fat, contains enough protein to provide a nice pick-me-up when paired with toast, whole-wheat crackers or apples, say McCoy and Runyon.

Peeled carrots or pitas stuffed with low-fat cheese and vegetables are other healthy edibles they suggest. George also recommends lean meats and fat-free yogurts.

If it's carbohydrates you desire, steer clear of the simple forms, like sugared cereal and candy, because the energy boost they provide will be short-lived, Cheskin says. More complex versions such as pasta, rice and bread will provide a longer-lasting boost, he says.

Eating too many sweets like chocolate may put you in overdrive for a while, but a "crash" is soon to follow, George warns.

After carbohydrate-rich or sugary foods are eaten, the chemical serotonin is released from the brain, causing drowsiness or increased hunger, explains McCoy.

If you have a lot to get done and can't afford to feel sleepy, also stay away from foods in the high-fat category, like sauces and gravies, says Cheskin.

"It sits in your stomach and makes you feel full," he says, which can lead to lethargy.

Many people turn to caffeine for an energy boost, but it has no nutritional value, McCoy says. If coffee is your beverage of choice, one or two six- to eight-ounce cups a day isn't bad, she says, but those who drink more may build up tolerance and therefore need more to feel its kick.

Dehydration also can make people feel droopy, so drink plenty of noncaffeinated beverages, says Cheskin. Keeping those fluids flowing through the system will inevitably lead to another energy booster - frequent walks to the bathroom, he says.

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