By Catharine L. Kaufman — a.k.a. The Kitchen Shrink
One recent day, while standing in line at the local coffeehouse among the denizens suffering, as I was, with the usual mid-afternoon slump, I could almost hear our shared thought-chorus pleading: “What’s with the slow-motion Barista? Speed it up… I need my Java-jolt NOW! Or I’ll fall over with fatigue…”
Trying to take my mind off an imminent collapse, I made some generalized remarks out loud about the urgency of our caffeine fix, which immediately transformed our line into a complaining social group remarkable for its diversity. Among us were high school and college students, young moms with babies in strollers or toddlers in tow, dapper executive ‘suits,’ seniors of all shapes and grungy millennial tourists schlepping giant backpacks. Few if any of them seemed to be lining up for love of coffee; I saw them as desperados running on empty and looking to refuel with high-octane caffeine to get them through the last lap of their working, shopping or sightseeing day.
This encounter, combined with my daughter’s frequent complaints about having to give up coffee because of its side-effects—such as blinding migraines, body-shaking jitters and insomnia—and inability to find a non-narcotic stimulant to help her through overnight cramming sessions for finals, drove me to search for food-based and caffeine-free energizers. Discovering that my girl’s caffeine reaction was also protecting her from the perils of adding enormous amounts of sugar, uric acid and fat (in lattes and whipped cream) to her diet, I sent a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to her sensitive digestive system.
So, grateful for the rare occasion to be needed by an adult child, this Foodie Mom is ready to reveal the treasure-trove of healthy energy boosters found to be free of the shake, rattle and roll triggered by caffeine-based stimulants.
Breakfast of Champions
Hands down, a versatile, all-organic breakfast is the healthiest meal to keep mind and body energized till lunchtime. It might include a half-cup of probiotic kefir or low fat yogurt (preferably goat, not cow dairy), low-sugar fruit (honeydew melon or berries), a slice of whole-grain bread (with either avocado, egg, sardines, etc.) or cereal (oatmeal, granola, etc.) for ‘carbo-loading’ (with almond or oat milk); washed down with a cup of green tea (decaf, although even the regular is naturally low in caffeine). (Note: Grain foods should be gluten-free for Celiac or others with grain sensitivity.)
Mid-morning snacks of almonds, walnuts, sunflower or other seeds are nutritious powerhouses of plant-based protein, fatty acids, iron, magnesium, zinc and alpha-linoleic acid, which boost mental and physical performance and repair damaged cells.
Foods rich in mood-elevating nutrients increase endorphin levels over longer periods then short-lived caffeine highs, while also providing massive infusions of vitamins—such as the C, K and assortment of energy-boosting B’s with which strawberries are loaded, in addition of potassium, magnesium, blood sugar-regulating fiber, heart-healthy Omega-3’s and huge amounts of antioxidants that protect cells from damage. Lunching on spicy foods flavored with chilies, jalapeno or other hot peppers brimming with capsaicin also lend energy to drooping thought processes, as do such meal-topping herbal teas as peppermint, rosehips or hibiscus—given an added kick by a chunk of fresh ginger root to spike blood circulation and lend a longer lasting jolt to the nervous system than caffeine.
This tropical marvel might be higher in calories and sugar than some other fruits, but it makes up for it big time by lavishing enough potassium, magnesium and B-6’s to perk up the most exhausted soul—sans caffeine. It also eases nervous tension, slows heart rate and lowers blood pressure, while its high-soluble fiber content regulates blood sugar levels, thus preventing both hyper-rush and lethargy. A banana and nut smoothie (see recipe below) or a slice of banana-nut bread is an excellent remedy for the droops.
The Grain Train
Avoid fast-burning simple carbs like sugar, alcohol or white flour products—especially GMO—and head for organic whole grain breads, pasta and cereal at the grocery store, to save your mind, body and health from wilting by midday. Simple carbs sear the human system with blood pressure spikes and the intense heat effect of burning straw—a chemical process that leaves toxic bio-ashes that burden the liver and kidneys with the task of clearing the body. Complex carbs, such as whole grains, release their healthy nutrients slowly, giving the body time to absorb and convert them to long-lasting energy.
Brown and wild rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes and squashes have the added advantage of being gluten-free and sugar-misers. Unlike rice, quinoa is actually a seed, not a grain, while sweet potatoes belie their name as no relation to the starchy nightshade spud. Both sweet potatoes and yams fake out the taste buds by being sweet while containing less sugar (and lower glycemic index) than most fruit. Fortunately, they still share energy-boosting qualities.
Popeye must have discovered the energy-boosting power of spinach to have guzzled so much of it each time he had to do battle for his fair Olive Oil. As a child, I was only acquainted with spinach in overcooked, creamed and puréed form; and am quite pleased with today’s baby spinach salad craze. Rich in Vitamin B, folic acid and iron—an essential mineral known for its power to maintain optimum cellular function and ward off anemia and fatigue—spinach is now sharing popularity with kale and other dark leafy salad veggies as effective brain protectors that also help to sharpen cognitive functions.
The purple acai berry has gained world-fame in recent years for its energy- and metabolism-boosting properties, thanks to its high levels of B vitamins, minerals and fatty acids. While the frozen pulp comes originally unsweetened, acai juices, smoothies and other products are served sugar-sweetened. So read labels, ask restaurant servers about sugar content and indulge moderately.
The B’s Knees
Including assorted B vitamins (B-6, B-12, riboflavin, niacin, biotin, folic and pantothenic acids) in daily diet will provide a steady stream of alertness, energy and stamina. So my advice is to fill your plate with organic veggies such as kale, asparagus, cruciferous plants (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage), along with legumes (chickpeas, lentils, beans), citrus fruits, avocados, organic chicken and turkey, one or two eggs a week (or egg whites), wild-caught mid- and small-size fish such as salmon, trout, haddock, sardines, herring, and selected shellfish & crustaceans (deep water, wild-caught scallops, Dungeness crab) from the cleanest waterways possible to lower exposure to mercury and other contaminants.
Water, Water Everywhere…
The easiest and fastest way to refill depleted energy and flagging spirits is by remembering to stay hydrated, even when not thirsty—which seniors, in particular, tend to ignore. If pushing water is too uncomfortable, adjust the quantities recommended by health practitioners (i.e. ‘half of one’s weight in ounces’ or about eight glasses a day) to the most H2O your size or body type can accommodate. Make water tastier with a splash of pomegranate juice, a squirt of lemon or a few slices of refreshing cucumber. Coconut water can also be counted in the hydrating mix, especially because it is enriched with potassium and other minerals known to invigorate cells.
Watch out for stealth caffeine lurking in unsuspected places such as decaf coffee, non-cola sodas like root beer, energy drinks promoted as ‘invigorating’ or ‘perky,’ ‘mocha’-flavored and chocolate ice-creams and, sadly, high-cocoa-content chocolate to which so many of us are addicted. The good news for chocoholics is that plant-based carob looks, smells and tastes like chocolate, but has zero caffeine or other stimulant. Yey!
Banana Berry Nut Blast Recipe—a caffeine-free energy & mood booster:
1-cup non-dairy (almond, hazelnut, coconut, etc.) milk
2-tablespoons goat kefir or low-fat yogurt
1 frozen banana
1/2–cup fresh or frozen strawberries
2 tablespoons nut or seed butter (almond, walnut, sunflower)
1-tablespoon orange blossom honey
½-inch fresh grated ginger or ½-teaspoon powdered ginger
Process ingredients in blender until smooth; pour into glasses or Mason jars; garnish with banana and strawberry slices—and Voilá! A refreshing boos for brain and body.