The term "lunch coma" may be a little bit of an exaggeration—but not much of one. We’ve all been hit by that mid-afternoon slump that tends to weigh down our eyelids, slow down our brains and bring our productivity to a crawl (or even a standstill). Of course, the solution isn’t to skip lunch, but to choose the right fuel to keep you focused and energized at work.
"Certain nutrient-rich foods provide a slow, steady stream of energy to keep you productive all afternoon," says Samantha Cassetty, director of nutrition at The Healthy Mommy. "At the same time, other foods—particularly refined grains, ultra-processed snacks and foods and drinks high in added sugar—can cause your energy to dip and your attention to wander."
To avoid the post-lunch crash, health coach Liza Baker recommends eating a lunch of moderate size (this varies by individual) that includes whole foods—some lean protein, some beneficial fats, some vegetables (and fruits) and maybe some whole grains.
"When you focus on eating whole foods and devote 50–75 percent of your plate to veggies, you're taking in not just calories (which give you the energy you need to build up for the afternoon), but also a lot of vitamins and minerals that help your body use the protein and fats," says Baker.
Eating too much or too little can impact your energy level, too. As Cassetty points out, if you eat too lightly, you might find yourself distracted by hunger soon after lunch, whereas if you feel stuffed, your energy could lag and you might be distracted by feeling bloated and uncomfortable. "You want to find a happy medium where you feel content and energized," Cassetty says.
Key Ingredients for Sustaining Energy
Brown rice: Cassetty suggests brown rice as a nutrient-rich whole grain and a healthy, carb-containing food, which is the brain’s preferred source of energy. Brown rice can be served in a burrito bowl, as a side dish or layered over other salads. Cassetty also likes mixing brown rice with riced cauliflower and serving it with chopped cucumbers, avocado and smoked salmon in a deconstructed sushi bowl. "People have a tendency to limit carbs, but when eaten in the right amounts and timed to when you’ll use the energy (like at lunch), they can really benefit your brain and body, not to mention your meal satisfaction."
Unsweetened Greek yogurt and fresh fruit: Yule recommends this combination as a healthy balance of carbohydrates and filling protein to help prevent the blood sugar fluctuations that can leave you dragging by the end of the day. "Choosing unsweetened yogurt is a great way to avoid rapidly digested added sugars that provide energy only for a short burst," she says. Yule suggests layering the yogurt and fruit in a glass for an easy and tasty parfait, topped with some nuts for healthy monounsaturated fats and a little more energy density.
Baby spinach: Leafy greens, like baby spinach, are rich in the mineral magnesium, which is involved in more than 300 bodily processes, Cassetty points out. "Magnesium helps to convert the food you eat into energy for your cells, and also helps you sleep better, so you’ll wake up feeling refreshed instead of groggy," she says. Try using baby spinach as a salad base, blending it with fruit into smoothies, sautéing it with scrambled eggs or stirring it into a bowl of soup.
Fruits and veggies: The fiber in fruits (like mangoes, bananas and apples) and veggies (like broccoli and corn), helps the body regulate metabolism in a way that provides more even energy levels throughout the day, notes William W. Li, MD, author of Eat To Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself. "A fresh salad and a piece of whole fruit is a great centerpiece for an energizing lunch," he says. "Add some fish with healthy omega-3 fatty acids or dark meat chicken thigh, which contains vitamin K2, and you’ll be boosting your health at the same time."
Avocado: Healthy, plant-based fats, like avocados, are an important element of a meal because they help you stay fuller longer, so you’ll be less likely to start searching for snacks an hour after lunch, Cassetty notes. Beyond that, research suggests avocados may boost attention levels when eaten regularly. "In addition to a burrito bowl, avocados are a great [topper for] any salad, and they're also an easy swap for mayo on sandwiches," she says. "I'm also a fan of avocado toast, but I'd suggest including extra nutrient-rich veggies as well as a lean protein source (like cottage cheese, eggs, tuna or chicken), for a more balanced and filling meal that will keep you energized longer."
Hummus with whole-grain crackers and fresh vegetables: Yule recommends this balanced combo for its energizing complex carbohydrates, filling protein and wide range of beneficial phytochemicals. "Keep it simple by using the crackers and veggies as dippers for the hummus," she suggests.
Black beans: A lunch with adequate protein will help you stay fuller and more energized for longer. Cassetty recommends including black beans to give your lunch more staying power. "Beans contain B vitamins that help convert food to energy and keep blood sugar levels steady," she explains. Enjoy them in a burrito bowl, sprinkle beans into salads or use a bean dip in place of mayo in a sandwich. Cassetty points out that black beans also make a delicious and filling soup. "If you don't want a totally plant-based lunch, consider including beans along with chicken or fish in your meal," she suggests.
Dark chocolate: Believe it or not, a piece of dark chocolate can add an energizing finishing touch to your lunch. "The polyphenols in cacao have been shown to improve circulation, which is key to alertness," says Dr. Li. "Or stir some dark cocoa powder into your coffee for a mocha boost to help you stay energized for the rest of the day."
Coffee or tea: In moderation, Dr. Li points out that the caffeine in coffee and tea will increase alertness and combat the post-prandial attention slump. "Coffee is also loaded with polyphenols that boost the body’s health defense systems, including immunity and circulation," he says. But if you do have coffee or tea with lunch, don’t add cream or milk, which can make you feel more sluggish.
What NOT to Eat for Lunch
"These ‘naked carbs’ can lead to a blood sugar spike and crash, potentially leaving you with low energy," she warns.
Cassetty adds that it’s best to steer clear of ultra-processed snacks (like pretzels and chips) and foods that are high in added sugar. That means avoiding things like cookies and donuts, as well as seemingly healthier snacks like yogurt and granola bars if they contain more than one or two teaspoons of added sugar.
"It might seem that sugary foods would provide instant energy, but research shows they make you feel less alert and more tired, so stopping by the vending machine for a candy bar or a sugary granola bar isn’t the best way to get through your afternoon," she says.
Dr. Li also suggests avoiding fried foods, creamy dressings, heavy pasta sauces and fatty meats. "These can increase the feeling of tiredness after a meal, and are a drag on your health defenses," he warns.
When it comes to beverages, skip the sugary drinks like colas, sports drinks and coffee and tea beverages made with sugary mixers.
By making smart lunch choices, you can keep your energy levels from lagging throughout the day. Experiment with various options to find the ones that match your taste preferences and help you feel your best.