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Foods to Help Fight Fatigue

08 September 2023

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Nobody likes to feel fatigued. It’s that weary exhaustion that doesn’t seem to get better when we’re at rest. We can become physically fatigued, mentally fatigued or both.

In some cases, fatigue can be an indicator of an underlying medical problem, but most of the time, it can be correlated with habits we either need to break or adopt. Too much exercise or physical exertion can lead to fatigue, as can boredom, poor sleep, emotional stress and poor eating habits.

Our focus today is on foods and eating habits that can help with fatigue. If you experience fatigue that does not seem to ease with better sleep and nutrition, call your primary care physician.

Here are some tips for how to eat for optimal energy:

Eat breakfast! Your body needs food in the morning. Eating nudges your metabolism into action, giving your brain the glucose it needs for fuel and the rest of your body an energy boost. Complex carbohydrates with protein make for an efficient, satisfying breakfast. Whole-grain wheat toast with peanut butter and a banana is a great choice. 

No meal skipping. Aim for small, well-balanced meals throughout the day. Three meals and 2-3 small snacks.  You don’t want to overeat or undereat. Balance should be the goal, nutritionally and portion-wise. 

Eat some iron. Look for iron rich foods – too little iron in your diet can contribute to anemia, AKA iron deficiency, which makes folks feel fatigued. Women are especially prone to anemia, so ladies, take heed.

Don’t skip carbs – just make sure they’re the right kind. Aim for complex carbohydrates at each meal, like whole grains, beans or oatmeal. 
Go easy on the junk food. Eat more fruits, vegetables and lean proteins and less highly processed, salty, sugary or fatty food.

Avoid overeating. Instead of three large meals a day, which many of us were raised to believe is a healthy way to eat, try three lighter meals and 2-3 healthy little snacks. A big meal can make you feel sluggish and sleepy but small meals throughout the day keep your energy level consistent.

The foods we choose can ease – or contribute to - physical and mental fatigue.

Here are some ideas for what to eat for optimal energy:

Dark leafy greens. Spinach, kale, chard, collards and the like are high in lutein. It’s a brain-protecting antioxidant. It helps keep free radicals and inflammation at bay, and higher lutein levels have been shown to help with learning and memory, too. Plus energy.

Eggs are satisfying and packed with protein, which means steady and sustained energy. They also contain leucine, an amino acid known to stimulate energy production in several ways. It helps cells take in more blood sugar, stimulates energy production in the cells and ups the breakdown of fat to produce energy. Eggs are also rich in B vitamins, which help enzymes perform their roles in the process of turning food into energy.

Low glycemic-index carbs. These are things like chia seeds, steel cut oatmeal, quinoa and brown rice. They’re also great at helping you feel fuller longer and can therefore help with weight loss.

Macadamia nuts. Most nuts and seeds are terrific to snack on when you want to curb hunger and ease fatigue. They’re a good source of iron, for one thing. A small handful of macadamias is delicious, concentrated energy. They contain all of the major macronutrients including good fats, protein and carbohydrates. Caveat – they are calorie dense. Your small handful will contain 160 to 200 calories. 

Prebiotics. Eat prebiotic-rich foods daily. These include leeks, asparagus, artichokes, bananas, oats, berries, beans, garlic and onions. 

Probiotics. In addition to keeping your gut healthy and your bowel movements regular, foods containing probiotics help fight fatigue. They include yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and kefir, along with cheese like cheddar, Gouda, Gruyere, Swiss and provolone. Cheeses containing probiotics have been aged but not heated.

Dark chocolate. Aside from being delicious, dark chocolate contains a natural energy booster similar to caffeine, called theobromine. Dark chocolate has been proven to stimulate serotonin production. The darker the chocolate, the less sugar it contains, so as long as you enjoy it in moderation you don’t have to worry too much about a sugar crash.

Carrots. Aside from being an excellent snack or light lunch when dipped in hummus, carrots are a terrific choice for a quick energy lift. They have a healthy dose of natural fruit sugar and are a healthy carbohydrate with bonus points for also containing vitamins A, K, C, B6 and B12.

Hummus. It’s full of fiber and protein. 

Lean protein. A great choice? Salmon. Besides giving your body a healthy boost of protein, salmon also contains ‘good fats,’ in the form of omega-3 fatty acids. Chicken and turkey are other good sources of lean protein. 

Drink Water. When your water level is low, you may feel weaker and more tired than usual. Drinking enough water, and eating plenty of hydrating foods (soups, fruit, vegetables) can help you stay energized.

Healthy fats. You’ll find healthy monosaturated fats in avocados, olive oil and nut butters. 

Sweet potatoes are a great source of iron, magnesium and vitamin C, a nutrient needed for energy production. Add to that a healthy dose of fiber (complex carbs) and these nutritional powerhouses are also rocket boosters for your energy level.

Here are some foods to avoid – these are likely to increase fatigue:

Industrial seed oils. Our food industry pumps oil our of things like grapeseed, soybean, palm and sunflowers. Despite being plant-based, these oils are not great for you and can contribute to fogginess and fatigue. During all that processing, these oils become jam-packed with omega-6 fatty acids, known to cause inflammation, which in turn is a contributor to feelings of fatigue. They’re also not good brain food. These are not at all like their healthy relatives, omega-3 fatty acids. Studies indicate that people who consume foods rich in omega-6 fatty acids experience a higher risk of depression than people who choose foods rich in omega-3s.

Artificial sweeteners. Studies have demonstrated that these chemicals can be toxic to our brains, changing concentrations of neurotransmitters associated with mood regulation. Another study showed that people who consume artificial sweeteners are more depressed than people who don’t.

Processed foods. When we eat highly processed foods (think sodas, candy, chips and baked goods) our bodies are flooded with refined and added sugars, bombarding the brain with more glucose than it needs or can effectively deal with, resulting in inflammation in the brain – and fatigue.

Added and refined sugar. Brain inflammation and fatigue are a result of eating ed and refined sugars. They’re found in obvious places (cakes, candy, boxed cereals) and sneaky places like French fries, salad dressing and ketchup. Sugar has an addictive effect – the more you eat it the more you want it, but the reverse is also true – eat less or none and over time you won’t miss it at all.

Fried foods. Look, fried chicken is delicious. So is a lovely tempura vegetable appetizer. But we really will feel better and be healthier if we eat fried food in moderation. They contribute to low energy and depressed mood because they’re fried in so-called ‘bad fats.’ (see ‘industrial seed oils’ above.) Don’t believe us? A 2016 study tracked 715 people’s fried food consumption, depression levels and resilience. Guess who felt more depressed and less resilient? It was the folks who ate the most fried foods. 

By making thoughtful dietary choices and adopting healthy eating habits, you can enhance your energy levels and combat fatigue effectively.

For more health and wellness content, visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog. To learn more about our mental health services, visit our mental health website.

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