Cut The Caffeine

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For many of us, the average morning is akin to being an extra in a zombie movie. Millions of people stumble to work each day with stiff muscles, bleary eyes, and heavy breathing, all punctuated by low, repeating moans.

"Coffeeeeee…"

Once you get that first cup of coffee, the dull-grey world explodes into brilliant color (think office cubicles housing three Bollywood musicals at once) and we become Superman. Alert! Active! Blessedly awake! Unfortunately, a few ticks of the hour hand later we're once again the Living Dead. The chair's pushed back, the coffee pot is hit, and the cycle repeats itself.

Way too much of a good thing?

Caffeine, though something of a wonder drug, is getting abused. Taken in moderation, particularly in things like dark chocolate or black coffee, it can have health benefits. `Moderation,' however, becomes an unfamiliar concept when you're drinking a dozen cups of coffee a day. High blood pressure, anxiety, increased risk for cardiovascular disease, and increased risk of ulcers are a few of the problems associated with overconsumption.

The problem is, we need our caffeine; two thirds of Americans simply don't get enough sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. For many, coffee won't cut it, leading to increased consumption of energy drinks like Red Bull or the charmingly-named Cocaine. And the stuff is showing up where you'd least expect it: mints, chewing gum, donuts.

But there are plenty of strategies you can use to remain energized while avoiding excessive caffeine. It takes a little more effort than buying that mocha or opening that Coke, but you're guaranteed to feel better than ever before.

Eat breakfast.
Yes, it's a cliché, but breakfast remains the most important part of your day. Not only will a proper meal in the A.M. (not a chocolate bar and some soda pop) energize you for hours, it'll help you keep your weight down—the body uses nutrients less efficiently when it wakes up, meaning you'll retain fewer unneeded calories by having that food earlier in the day.

Ideal breakfast foods include oatmeal, high-fiber cereals, veggies, and whole-wheat toast. Because they contain so much fiber, it takes you longer to process the sugars inside, meaning your body gets a slow, steady flow of energy instead of one tidal wave. One massive jolt of caffeine will pep you up, sure, but once it wears off you're left worse than when you started.

Eat when you're hungry.
Three square meals a day may be neater on a schedule, but it sure ain't healthier. Don't be afraid of snacking between meals! Doing this maintains a reasonable amount of energy all day long. As an added bonus, you may lose some weight; counterintuitive as that sounds, spreading out your caloric intake means you're less likely to overeat during "big" meals.

Bear in mind, this does not mean you should be munching down potato chips and cookies! What you snack on is just as important as the snacking itself.

Good snacks:
Fruit is loaded with energizing fructose, as well as healthy fiber and plenty of antioxidants. An apple with some peanut butter or a cool bunch of grapes can quickly take the place of that midday candy bar, and a yogurt-based fruit smoothie makes a great replacement for your three cans of soda.

Almonds and other nuts are superb snacks as well—they're filling, crunchy, and bursting with omega-3 (that's the fat we actually should eat). Yogurt and other low-fat dairy foods, too, provide much needed energy along with nutrients necessary to maintain your metabolism and keep your body healthy.

Eat these foods throughout the day, never overeating (gorging yourself leads to fatigue, like when you nod off at Thanksgiving). In addition, consider foods high in iron like steak once or twice a week; iron is important for energy, too. It's okay to drink a cup or two of coffee along with all this, but if you find yourself downing seven hugelarge cups of espresso each day: cut back. And finally, most importantly…

Sleep.
Even with new wonder-drugs like Modafinil—which can keep a person up for 40 hours straight with no side-effects—sleep experts reiterate there is no substitute for a full night's rest. The brain needs it, the body needs it, your very soul needs it. We aren't machines; no matter what we put into our bodies to keep them running, if we don't have sleep to go along with it we'll eventually pay dearly.

So next time you reach for your coffee mug, consider having some fruit instead—and get some sleep once you get home from work!

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