Energy has become the holy grail of the modern world, its seekers attacking their pursuit with a zeal bordering on religious. Everyone wants more; no one has quite enough. What supplement, what pill, what superfood, what magic potion can we take to unlock the elusive mystery that is energy? Clients look to me expectantly, eager to hear my magical cure for their diminished vitality.
My answer typically leaves them sorely disappointed. Here’s the secret: go to sleep! If you’re not getting adequate sleep (quality or quantity), you aren’t going to have energy. Period. End of story. No amount of food or activity level will fix that. We are overworked, run down, and overwhelmed. We work more, sleep less, stress more, and seek solitude less. The “magical secret” in fact has little to do with nutrition and everything to do with slowing down for a change. Let yourself rest. Sleep. Meditate. Unplug from technology. Sit in silence. Breathe.
Unfortunately, I can only imagine the scoffing and gestures that are being made toward your computer screen, reading some nutrition writer’s piece on how the only solution is to rework your entire schedule, cut back at your job, put away the technology, and find time for some extra shut-eye.
I know, it’s downright blasphemy, and ultimately, probably not too realistic, either.
Getting to the root of fatigue is crucial; you won’t unleash some store of untapped energy within you if your lifestyle isn’t conducive to it. However, those changes take time, and some may not ever happen. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at nutrition, because there may very well be some foods in your diet that are making your fatigue even worse.
1. Refined (“Simple”) Carbohydrates
There are two main types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Complex carbohydrates (grains, beans, and starchy veggies mostly) are made of these crazy-long chains of sugars; because they’re so big, they take a long time to break down and lead to more sustained energy. Simple carbohydrates, on the other hand (like fruits, sweeteners, and the dairy sugar, lactose), are made of much shorter chains, which can be broken down and absorbed much more quickly. This causes blood sugars to spike and eventually crash even lower than before, particularly when eaten in large quantities.
Keep in mind, though, that simple versus complex isn’t the end of the story. Anyone who claims otherwise most likely hasn't done all of their research.
A simple carbohydrate with lots of fiber (like berries) behaves more like a complex carbohydrate, in that it breaks down more slowly and can help with energy. A complex carbohydrate that has been stripped of its fiber (like white bread), on the other hand, behaves a lot more like a simple carbohydrate, and can ultimately leave us feeling more lethargic.
Be wary of refined grains, sugar in all of its glorious forms, and sweetened beverages of all shapes and sizes (yes, even too much cold-pressed fruit juice). These foods not only increase feelings of lethargy but are more likely to lead to feelings of depression, which can further impact energy levels for the worse.
Instead, choose whole grains like quinoa, farro, wild rice, and sprouted grain breads; opt for whole fruits over smoothies or juices; and if you need a little added sweetness, try lower glycemic, nutrient-rich sweeteners like coconut sugar, local honey, and pure maple syrup. Remember, though, “natural” sweeteners are still simple carbs, so use them judiciously.
2. Low Carbohydrate Diets in General
On the flip side, getting enough carbohydrates is equally important. You see, all carbohydrates eventually break down in the body into glucose (otherwise known as “sugar”), which is our bodies’ preferred source of fuel.
Our brains in particular run on these broken down carbohydrates. On top of that, we aren’t really able to store glucose in large quantities, so we need a pretty steady supply. Before you reach for that I.V. drip of soda, though, let me clarify that by “steady supply,” I mean getting small to moderate amounts at each meal. Eat too much, and you’ll feel sluggish as your body struggles to process it all; don’t eat enough, and you’ll feel low energy as your body struggles to fuel itself on, essentially, fumes. When I explained this to a client recently, she had a light bulb moment and asked in amazement, “Is that why when I cut out all carbohydrates for several months I felt…lifeless?”
Why, yes. Yes, it most certainly is.
Look, I’m not someone who has her clients shoveling carbs into their pie holes like there’s no tomorrow. Determining what amount of carbohydrates are right for you as an individual requires walking a fine line. Some people seem to thrive on slightly lower amounts, but as a clinician, I rarely recommend someone drop below 40 percent of their calories from carbohydrates. Whenever I have someone in my office consuming less than that—even if the sources of the carbohydrates they are eating are extremely nutrient-dense and complex—I guarantee you the complaint that brought them into my office is lack of energy. And when they increase their carbs even slightly, they immediately feel more energetic. That's no coincidence.
3. “Diet” or Low Calorie Foods
If low carbohydrate diets, from Atkins to Keto and beyond, leave many people feeling extremely fatigued, the same can be said for most “diet” foods in general: Special K cereals, “ice creams” that claim to have 200 calories per pint, and half the frozen meals in your local supermarket are all prime examples. Everything is in 100-calorie packs (a number, by the way, that is completely arbitrary), and even now, decades after the low-fat craze, products use their lack of fat as a draw for diet-conscious consumers.
Generally, these products are marketed to women because we’re taught we should eat like birds or, in other words, barely at all. They are practically the caloric equivalent of chewing on air. They may literally fill up our stomach (generally because they’re pumped up with isolated fibers, water, gums, and thickeners), but they do nothing to nourish us. Basically, they trick our brains into no longer asking for food, but our cells are left still starving for energy. Food is fuel; if you don’t eat enough, you will feel tired. And cranky. That hangry feeling? It's totally a thing.
It’s like if you were running out of gas in your car, but instead of stopping for more, you just poured water into the tank. Sure, the water will fill the tank, but your car most certainly ain’t gonna run on it. Do that enough and your car is as good as gone.
It can be challenging after a lifetime of dieting, but remind yourself that food is not the enemy. Give yourself permission to eat. Listen to your body; I can’t tell you how many times I say that. It’s dying to tell you how it feels, what it needs, and what it doesn’t.
Caffeine can absolutely help to alleviate fatigue in the short term, and it’s one of the safest, most effective “supplements” (or food compounds) when it comes to quick energy bursts. This makes it particularly useful one hour (up to four hours) before an endurance workout. It also helps with concentration and focus, which are going to be compromised when you’re tired. However, it’s ultimately just a Band-Aid fix at best when it's used chronically to cover up fatigue stemming from deeper issues. If you’re not getting enough calories or sleep (or if the quality of either of those two things needs improving) or if you’re experiencing emotional rather than physical fatigue, caffeine will actually only make matters worse.
This is especially true when caffeine is consumed in the afternoon or later, because it is more likely to interfere with sleep (and let’s face it, that is pretty much the last thing any of us needs). So, try to keep your caffeine habit confined to the early portions of your day. Remember, this includes all forms of caffeine—not just coffee—so that would also mean you need to curb your P.M. habit of reaching for chocolate, tea, certain soft drinks, energy drinks, and supplements.
If you do consume caffeine, stick to moderate to low doses and consider switching to green tea, which some say has a gentler effect on alertness. If your caffeine consumption is beyond that “moderate to low” dose range, take steps to cut back gradually rather than cold turkey to help your body adjust.
Alcohol is a sneaky substance. First, it makes you feel drowsy because initially, it’s a depressant. This lulls you into a false sense of security and can make you doze off. Then, it continues to break down in the body, transforming from a depressant into a stimulant. It can increase epinephrine (a stress hormone) in your body and ultimately lead to a more restless sleep. You may not consciously wake up during the sleep, but your body will not be adequately rested. And how do you feel after a restless night’s sleep?
Yup. Fatigued. Not to mention how chipper and energetic you feel with a nice hangover the next morning.
The honest-to-goodness answer to this conundrum is a highly unpopular one: don’t drink. I know, I know. If that’s not happening, try cutting back gradually over time until you’re down to one or two drinks on special occasions, and pay particular attention to the amount of alcohol you consume close to bedtime.
If you’re having a hard time latching onto that motivation to change your drinking habits, try keeping a journal of how you feel physically and emotionally the day after drinking versus the day after a night spent not drinking, and see if you notice anything different between those two scenarios. How did you perform at work the next day? How rested did you feel? What kinds of foods did you gravitate toward? (Remember those simple carbs we talked about? They’ll only add insult to injury, but chances are, you’re more likely to go for them when you feel crummy.) It’s also crucial to seek support from those around you, so they know how they can help.
6. Any Food to Which You Are Intolerant or Sensitive
There is some controversy in this, but fatigue is increasingly being recognized as a symptom of food intolerances. This is most well pronounced and widely accepted when it comes to Celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Although gluten sensitivities are likely a little over-diagnosed (and over self-diagnosed) in this day and age, for the people who do have issues with gluten, the cognitive side effects are very real. And for individuals who feel neurological improvements on a gluten-free diet despite not having a diagnosed intolerance, consider first whether it’s due to the removal of gluten, or simply the removal of many processed foods that do contain gluten, like bagels, cakes, and take-out.
Beyond gluten, everyone responds to food and the environment uniquely, which can make it difficult to pinpoint intolerances. A good first step is a food and symptom diary, which involves meticulously keeping track of everything you eat and every symptom you feel. Keep one for as long and in as much detail as you can, and speak with an allergy specialist, GI doctor, or registered dietitian to help you find answers to your concerns. These diaries can be quite the challenge to interpret on your own.
Ultimately, you may need to try an elimination diet to pinpoint exactly which foods are bothering you. Many exist, but all should be overseen by a professional well-versed in their intricacies. Some popular elimination diets include The Specific Carbohydrate Diet, gluten-free, low FODMAP, and GAPs.
Oh, and if you discover that you’re intolerant to a food? Stop eating it! Even though it's tempting to have a cheat day or weak moment, the pain you'll feel afterward won't be worth it. The consequences may not be as severe as allergic anaphylaxis, but they still cause damage, even if you don’t feel it.
Make The Change
Again, even completely eliminating all of these foods will not fix fatigue caused by some underlying issue, but cutting back on them is certainly a step in the right direction. Then once you get the hang of which foods to watch out for, you can start paying attention to which foods make you feel like getting up and moving.
The fatigue plaguing so many of us is unlikely to be caused solely by one thing. Sleep is a big issue, but physical activity, stress, technology, and yes, nutrition all play pivotal roles. We can’t tackle them all at once, and many people feel more comfortable starting with something relatively tangible and simple, like food. In general, cut back on the processed foods and slowly incorporate more wholesome, minimally messed-with options. You’ll automatically start consuming fewer “simple” and low fiber carbohydrates, and more “complex” and high fiber ones. It will also steer you away from packaged, “diet” foods. That one shift, simple but admittedly challenging for many (so go slow!), could make a dramatic difference. And even if you aren’t suspicious of an actual food intolerance, go on and give that food-symptom diary a try! You may notice some connections between your diet and mood that you hadn’t realized before; and the more you know about how your body reacts to the choices you make, the better off you’ll be.
Ultimately, the more you practice listening to your body and how it responds to foods, activities, and other lifestyle factors, the more in tune you’ll be with what it needs, and the more you’ll be able to make choices that will leave you feeling your best.