Energy - a misunderstood and over-hyped word

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Friday, 28 November 2008.
Tagged: caffeine, concentration, energy, healthy cooking, healthy eating, healthy lifestyle, sugary drinks

Energy - a misunderstood and over-hyped word
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Would you like more energy? Want to bounce out of bed in the morning? Need to power through your Inbox? Isn't what all frantic overworked people want? Energy and lots of it! Yet that's not what is meant by the word ‘energy' when it's listed on a food pack.

Energy or vitality?

As a nutritionist, I hate the word ‘energy'. These days it's everywhere on energy drinks, energy bars, B vitamin pills and even breakfast cereals that claim ‘carbs for energy' as if there was something magical about their cereal.

The problem is that the term ‘energy' has two meanings. Tired people seeing ‘energy' on a food pack think it will give them more ‘vitality' and ‘vigour' of the sort associated with the ‘high energy' lifestyles in the media.

To a science-based person, however, ‘energy' means something completely different. It refers to the fuel value supplied by food and diets and burned by activities.

Kilojoules and Calories

These are the units used to measure food energy - kilojoules (abbreviated to kJ) and Calories (Cals). Kilojoules are the metric units that have replaced Calories, e.g. a bowl of cereal supplies 480 kilojoules or 117 Calories.

A ‘high energy' food (seemingly positive) simply means it's high in kilojoules/Calories (not so positive), something to avoid if we're sedentary or overweight. Chocolate bars are often promoted as ‘high energy' together with images of athletes sprinting, running a marathon or doing push-ups. If that's what you do with your day, then you need high kilojoules. If you're a tired office worker getting little or no exercise then you definitely don't! In reality, ‘high energy' means high kilojoules - around 1090 kilojoules or 265 Calories for an average 60 gram bar of chocolate. You'd have to jog 30 minutes to burn off that amount.

orange-juice-smll1 glass orange juice = 400kJ or 95 Calories


Energy drinks - are they just caffeine or will they boost your energy?

‘Energy drinks' is another misleading term for the processed, coloured, flavoured caffeinated drinks sold at night clubs and workplaces. The ‘boost to energy' from these comes from their caffeine and sugar - simple! Caffeine is an effective aid to both mental and physical performance. We love it because it decreases our perception of fatigue and increases alertness - for about 2 or 3 hours but then we crash. Overdo the caffeine and it can have side effects ranging from insomnia to the very serious cardiac arrythmia in caffeine-sensitive people. See a report in the Medical Journal of Australia from 2009 of a healthy 28-year-old men who suffered a cardiac arrest after 7 to 8 cans of energy drinks within 7 hours (up to 640mg caffeine).

And don't forget, energy drinks still contain sugar like ordinary soft drinks. If you're not burning if off, all that sugar slips into your fat stores.

How to get more vitality

Energy Jumping in air optVitality comes from a balanced lifestyle which includes:

  • Steering clear of so-called ‘high energy' - in reality high kilojoule - foods which weigh you down, not pick you up!
  • Eating a balanced diet - wholegrains, vegetables, fish, meat, nuts, dairy - that gives you the vitamins and minerals you need
  • Exercising - it clears out the cobwebs, releases endorphins and renews your enthusiasm for life
  • Thinking positive
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Little or no alcohol
  • Having a passion or purpose in life
  • Listening to energising music
  • Eating lightly - especially late in day
  • Doing some fun, silly things every so often.

The bottom line

If you're tired and are craving more ‘energy', chances are your life is somewhat unbalanced. A little more sleep, a little more exercise and more fresh foods are the answer, not energy drinks and energy bars. Remember there's energy (vitality and vigour) and there's energy (empty kilojoules/Calories)! Choose the former not the latter.

Catherine Saxelby About the author

About the Author


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Catherine Saxelby's My Nutritionary

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Catherine Saxelby has the answers! She is an accredited nutritionist, blogger and award-winning author. Her award-winning book My Nutritionary will help you cut through the jargon. Do you know your MCTs from your LCTs? How about sterols from stanols? What’s the difference between glucose and dextrose? Or probiotics and prebiotics? What additive is number 330? How safe is acesulfame K? If you find yourself confused by food labels, grab your copy of Catherine Saxelby’s comprehensive guide My Nutritionary NOW!