Caffeine is both a blessing and a curse: No doubt, it’s gotten countless college students through many a late-night cramming session, kept working professionals at least somewhat alert through multi-hour conference meetings, and incentivized nearly every individual to forgo the warmth of their covers and face the morning. However, caffeine is not without its consequences, and as with any stimulant, it should be used in moderation. For constant energy without the jittery side effects or sleepless nights, food trumps caffeine.

Recall the biology and health classes you took in middle school—calories from food are the original energy source. Energy sustains every life form, and part of that is not only keeping bodies in operation but keeping them healthy and functioning at their optimal level. Food is fuel, and it’s our first defense against drowsiness, disease and running out of energy.

What to Look for in an Energy-Boosting Snack

All foods are made of three components or macronutrients: Carbs, protein, and fat. True, food engineering has made it possible to isolate a singular macronutrient (such as protein isolates or pure cane sugar), but for the sake of keeping things as natural and healthy as possible, stick to whole foods.

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. Simplistically speaking, energy is released when the sugars that make up carbohydrates are broken down by digestion. There are two kinds of carbohydrates: Simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates quickly break down and release their sugars whereas complex carbohydrates provide steady fuel and take longer to digest. The faster the carbohydrate is broken down, the quicker the energy hit. This explains why simple carbohydrates like fruit and refined sugar-laden foods (soft drinks, ice cream, candy) provide that “sugar rush” feeling whereas complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and beans supply a steadier source of energy.

Athletes rely on carbohydrate-heavy foods to fuel their workouts and prevent “bonking,” but carbohydrates can also benefit non-athletes in everyday life. If complex carbohydrates can sustain a marathoner or a quick hit of fast-acting sugars can help an endurance cyclist power through a grueling race, it can get most people through a long, demanding day. Here are five plant-based foods to keep in mind for long-lasting energy.

1. Fruit

It’s called nature’s candy for a reason. Jacqueline Howard, certified in plant-based nutrition via eCornell, says, “Fruit is my go-to for some quick sugars and an energy pick-me-up. The other day, I forgot my lunch and was rushing between appointments and then to meet someone for a run. I came across a banana at work and it gave me the boost I needed to postpone my lunch until after my run.”

True, fruit won’t provide that immediate caffeine jolt, but in terms of whole foods, it’s your best option when you need energy now. The next time you’re about to enter a power Zoom meeting, chomp on an apple, munch on a handful of grapes, or copy Howard and scarf down a banana before you turn your camera on.

2. Oatmeal

You know what to do if you’re feeling that mid-morning lull (hello, tangerines), but doesn’t it make sense to avoid the lull entirely? Enter complex carbohydrates. There’s a reason we eat oatmeal for breakfast—it’s a complex carbohydrate with the power to release steady energy for hours. Oatmeal has come a long way since the drab days of brown sugar and raisins. These days, there are infinite ways to mix it up (literally)—stovetop, baked, and overnight. If you really can’t resist coffee in the morning, try this Dairy-Free Oatmeal Banana Coffee Smoothie.

Orange with Beetroot, Rocket ,Radish ,Sun flower sprout and Pumpkin seed salad
Getty Images/iStockphoto

3. Beets and other iron-rich foods

If you feel chronically fatigued or even just consistently tired, you may want to take a look at your blood work. Iron deficiency is one of the most common vitamin deficiencies in the world, and women are more affected than men. Beyond a simple blood test, fatigue is a telling sign that you could be low on iron.

Typically, upping your intake of iron-rich foods will get you back on track. Plant-based sources of iron include beets, beans, and leafy greens.

Note: Iron is best absorbed when consumed with vitamin C, so make yourself a citrus and beet salad or sip a smoothie with oranges and spinach blended in.

4. Nuts

We’re throwing a bit of a curveball in here. While nuts do contain some carbohydrates, they lean more toward fat and protein in terms of macronutrient ratios. Nuts teach us an important lesson in terms of energy maintenance: Protein and fat-rich foods provide satiety. Howard explains, “Foods that sustain energy are typically calorically dense—nuts, nut butter, nut milk, etcetera. They are the perfect blend of fat and power in a calorically dense bite.”

Given the nut’s relatively low carbohydrate content (about nine grams for one serving of cashews), they won’t provide instant energy, but they’re an important fuel source to keep you going during those long stretches of the day. Pediatrician Dr. Yami Cazorla-Lancater emphasized foods with caloric density (such as nuts), particularly for active individuals.

5. Water

True, water isn’t food, but without it, we guarantee you’ll feel sluggish. Proper hydration ensures efficient transport of nutrients to the cells—like those broken-down carbohydrates that provide energy. If your internal highway is slowing down, you will, too. Drink water regularly to avoid thirst, because if you’re thirsty, you’ve already reached a level of dehydration and your energy transport system is compromised. Drink up, and drink often!

Tanya Flink is a former personal trainer, and Content Manager at Switch4Good.

More From The Beet