Foods to Fight Fatigue

The right foods and nutrition can supply the oomph you're missing

By Dulce Zamora
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Tired. Drained. Pooped. No matter how you put it, you're beat and need to drum up some energy. You are not alone. Many people have trouble getting in gear in the morning, experience the afternoon slump, or just want to crash on the couch in the evening.

The exhaustion can be a constant problem for some folks. According to the CDC, 2.2 million Americans experience marked fatigue lasting at least six months.

Sluggishness can be caused by many factors, but experts say poor nutrition is a big culprit. A well-balanced diet, on the other hand, can boost energy.

"Food is truly our body's fuel," says Cindy Moore, MSRD, director of nutrition therapy for The Cleveland Clinic. "What we choose as our fuel is going to absolutely impact the performance of our bodies."

How do we fill up our personal tanks, and how well do they make our engine run? The experts weigh in on how major food and drink sources and habits affect energy levels.

The Forgotten Meal

At the beginning of the day, most people dash off to work or school without a thought to their body's dietary needs. Who has time to eat in the morning anyway?

"Breakfast is an easy meal to forget," says Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine. "But if people are skipping breakfast and find they're tired by midmorning, then it's time to re-evaluate that eating habit."

Research shows breakfast improves alertness and concentration, helps shed pounds by preventing overeating during the day, and prevents obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

To get these benefits and to prepare the body for the day, the American Dietetic Association recommends carbohydrates for energy and protein for endurance. Some quick options include:

  • Whole grain bagel with cheese
  • Cereal with fruit and yogurt
  • Whole-grain toast with peanut butter and fruit
  • Hard-boiled egg sliced into a whole-wheat pita
  • Scrambled eggs, toast, and fruit
  • Oatmeal with raisins

For the really busy bee, Camire says choices include breakfast bars, frozen omelets and breakfast sandwiches, oatmeal packets to go, and whole-grain cereals in prepackaged plastic bowls. Be mindful, though, of the sugar and fat content of your morning meal. A study in the November 2003 issue of Pediatrics found children who ate sugary breakfasts were hungrier and ate more at lunch.

Complex Carbohydrate Charge

Healthy eating doesn't stop in the morning. A well-balanced diet throughout the day is an essential source of sustained energy. The American Medical Association recommends that 50% to 60% of overall food intake come from carbohydrates, 30% from fat, and the rest from protein.

Although carbohydrates have gotten a bad reputation, the nutrient is still the body's preferred source of energy, says Dave Grotto, RD, director of nutrition at the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care in Evanston, Ill. Low-carb diets, he says, initially boost energy, but deplete it in the long run.

The best way to maximize the body's potential for energy is to eat a combination of complex and simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates, which are slow burning, should represent the bulk of the carbohydrates we eat, says Grotto. Foods such as whole grains and starchy vegetables such as potatoes, squash, pumpkin, and carrots fall into this category.

This does not mean ignoring simple carbohydrates with a slower burn, such as the sugar fructose, found in fruits, vegetables, and honey. They can provide an immediate source of energy.

Simple sugars found in candy bars, soft drinks, and cookies can also provide a quick boost, but then a big letdown afterward.

"You are going to get a rise in energy from the original hit of the sugar, but then, particularly for diabetics, sugar can drop below the baseline where it started," says John W. Finley, associate editor of the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, a publication of the American Chemical Society. He says the peak effect of sugar normally lasts 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the dose. Anything beyond that is reportedly psychological.

Without the complex carbohydrates to sustain the blood sugars, the body loses steam. "A diet that is based in complex carbohydrates seems to have less of that peak and valley of blood sugar effect," says Grotto.

It is also important to make sure your complex carbohydrates have fiber, says Dee Sandquist, MSRD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Fiber helps the carbohydrates that we eat to be more slowly absorbed by the body," she says. "So, therefore, the body gets a more balanced release of energy, as opposed to the quick burst of energy."