How to Eat for Energy

5 expert tips to fuel your summer activities.
Adult man eats protein snack bar while hiking outdoors

Summer in our region is all too short. That's why we often try to pack in as much fun as possible and hit the trails, bike paths, rivers and lakes.

We asked David Hernandez, RDN, CHC, a registered dietitian with University of Vermont Health Network – Central Vermont Medical Center, about which foods will keep us most energized for those summer outdoor adventures. Here are five tips to keep you going strong for hours.

1. Choose Carbohydrates Wisely 

Carbohydrates are your body's primary fuel source. Your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, the main energy source for your body's cells, tissues and organs. Carbs can be found in sugars, starches, and fibers, such as fruits, bread, rice, pasta and nuts.

But not all carbohydrates are equal. Soda, candy and desserts – all high in sugar – will give you an initial burst of energy that won't last very long.

For sustained energy, try nutrient-dense, fiber-rich carbohydrates like whole bread, brown rice, quinoa, bananas or oats.

“Those healthy carbohydrates take longer to burn off and help keep your body going,” Hernandez explains.

2. Pick Your Protein

Your body needs protein to repair and grow muscle that has broken down during exercise. Protein also promotes fullness by slowing digestion and stabilizing blood sugar levels.

Greek yogurt has less sugar and twice the amount of protein as regular yogurt. But avoid Greek or regular yogurts that are packed with added sugar and extra calories.

While you can find varieties of yogurt sweetened with stevia, allulose and monk fruit to reduce sugar content, your best choice is adding a cup of frozen blueberries and one tablespoon of chopped nuts to plain, non-fat Greek yogurt.

“That option is where you’ll actually get more volume of food that contains more protein and fiber to give you more sustained energy,” Hernandez says.

Tofu, chicken breast and peanut butter are other excellent sources of protein. Sandwiches on whole-grain bread with turkey, chicken, cheese or tofu combine protein with carbohydrates to give you energy and the nutrients your body needs. 

If you love peanut butter sandwiches, use natural peanut butter – the kind you need to stir. Unlike regular or reduced fat peanut butter, natural peanut butter doesn’t contain hydrogenated fat, palm oil or added sugars.

“Use caution with peanut butter and nuts, Hernandez warns, “They’re a high-calorie way to get protein.” For example, two tablespoons of natural peanut butter include 8 grams of protein with 190 calories. Meanwhile, one egg provides about 6 grams protein and has 70 calories. 

3. Fuel Up at the Right Times

Hernandez suggests eating about two hours before you head out. 

“That gives food more of a chance to digest," he says. “You don't want to be running, hiking or biking when your body is still working on digesting because that can cause a drop in energy.”

Hernandez also advises eating within 30 minutes after you return home.

“When you finish exercising, there’s that window of time when your body is more primed to refuel,” he says. “You want to get that protein and carb combination because you'll need protein to rebuild some muscle depending on what you've been doing.”

4. Pack Smarter Power Snacks

“Energy or protein bars can be helpful when you’re outdoor adventuring,” Hernandez says, “but you need to be selective. Sometimes these are candy bars in disguise.”

Choose bars that mix carbohydrates, protein and a little fat, and avoid bars where some of the main ingredients are sucrose (table sugar), corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup. Erythritol, a naturally occurring sugar alcohol also used in energy bars as a sweetener, can cause digestive issues if you consume too much.

Sugar alternatives like allulose and stevia are acceptable, but Hernandez warns that using them on a regular basis can perpetuate a continued desire for a sweet taste. 

Look for energy or protein bars containing 7-12 grams protein, at least 3 grams of fiber and fewer than 3 grams of saturated fat. Be sure to choose bars made with whole food ingredients like egg whites, dates and almonds.

“Protein bars can be a convenient way to get in a quick snack, but they vary widely and choosing a good one is important,” he says. 

Another option is trail mix, which combines carbohydrates, protein, and a little fat with seeds, nuts and dried fruit. Skip trail mixes with chocolate as they are higher in fat and calories.

And when it comes to nuts, unsalted ones are healthier. A quarter-cup of unsalted nuts has 6 grams of protein and is 220 calories.

Hernandez recommends portioning out nuts in 2 to 3 tablespoon servings in small containers to avoid overeating.

5. Hydrate Before You Feel Thirsty

Water should be your go-to before, during and after outdoor activities. Drink a couple of cups of water a few hours before venturing out and again 15 or 20 minutes before.

Continue sipping water every 15 minutes when hiking, walking, biking or kayaking – even if you don't feel thirsty. 

“Once you start to feel thirsty, it's already too late,” Hernandez says. “You’re then starting to get dehydrated.”

Hernandez advises skipping energy drinks that are loaded with caffeine and sugar. A non-caffeinated sports drink could be beneficial if your activity lasts over an hour. 

“At that point, your body might need more carbs and electrolytes,” he says.

Electrolytes are electrically charged minerals that regulate nerve and muscle function, hydrate the body, balance blood acidity and pressure and help rebuild damaged tissue. They leave the body through sweat and urine but you can replenish them with a variety of foods, too, including strawberries, kale, watermelon, bananas, almonds and yogurt. Electrolyte powders or hydration packs work, too.

When Hernandez goes for long walks in the summer, he opts for water, nuts, bananas and dried fruit. 

“When it comes down to it, a good snack for exercise combines fluids, some carbs and protein,” he says. “Those are good sources of sustained energy and staying hydrated.”


Carrot Cake Energy Bites

Yield: 12 balls


1/2 cup nuts (e.g. pecans, macadamia)

1 cup tahini or pitted dates

1/2 cup old fashioned rolled oats

1/4 cup chia seeds

2 medium (1 cup) carrots, grated

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

OPTIONAL: Include directly in the mixed ingredients or crush to coat the outside of each ball.

1/4 cup flaked coconut, toasted

1/4 cup pepita/pumpkin seeds, toasted


  1. In a food processor, add nuts and pulse to chop. Add all remaining ingredients and pulse until a paste forms.
  2. Roll the mixture into bite-sized balls.
  3. Optional: Coat energy balls with a mixture of pepita and coconut.
  4. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week or freeze.


Love Food and Recipes?

Visit the UVM Medical Center Culinary Medicine team online for tasty recipes and downloadable recipe cards. You can also visit our “What’s That Food” playlist on YouTube for delicious recipe videos featuring fresh, seasonal produce and simple growing tips.

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