Always tired? These foods can help

By Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published July 9, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Anti-inflammatory nutrients, including omega-3s and antioxidant vitamins, have been shown to reduce fatigue.

  • Getting enough iron while limiting red meat is possible and preferable to boost energy levels.

  • Foods with a lower glycemic index help stabilize blood sugar for lasting energy.

What you eat can make all the difference in your energy levels. While there are many potential causes of fatigue, nutrition can play a fundamental role in how sluggish or energized you feel on a daily basis. If you or your patients are tired all the time, simple dietary changes are a good first step to tackle the problem.

Anti-inflammatory foods

Researchers studying breast cancer developed the official “fatigue reduction diet.”[] In a study of 40 cancer survivors, researchers identified some notable differences between the diets of those who had higher vs lower levels of fatigue.[]

They determined that people with less fatigue had higher intakes of carotenoids, omega-3 fatty acids, and the antioxidant vitamins A and C. 

A follow-up pilot study confirmed these effects by placing 30 breast cancer survivors on a 3-month diet with high intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and omega-3 foods, with low saturated fat intake.[]

Along similar lines, the anti-inflammatory Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce fatigue in post-menopausal women.[] Specifically, “substituting fish for red and processed meat and whole grains for non-whole grains was associated with improvements in overall fatigue, energy, and weariness scores,” per researchers publishing in the Journal of Nutrition in Gerontology and Geriatrics.[]

Foods that fight anemia

Iron deficiency is associated with fatigue, impaired concentration, weakness, and poor immune function.[]

Despite relatively sufficient intakes in developed countries, several groups remain at risk for inadequate iron, including pregnant women, infants and children, menstruating women, blood donors, and people with cancer, GI disorders, or heart failure. 

Obtaining iron from food rather than supplements avoids potential side effects and medication interactions. Many people assume that red meat is the best way to get enough iron. However, this goes against recommendations to reduce red meat intake to promote better health and energy levels. Patients can be educated on the various non-red meat iron sources, which include the following:

  • Fortified cereals

  • Cooked oysters

  • White beans

  • Lentils

  • Cooked spinach

  • Firm tofu

  • Dark chocolate

  • Kidney beans

  • Sardines

  • Chickpeas

  • Stewed tomatoes

Although heme iron (from animal sources) is more readily absorbed, consuming vitamin C significantly increases the bioavailability of non-heme iron. Squeezing lemon on sauteed spinach or having a glass of orange juice with a bowl of lentil soup are examples of how to combine vitamin C with non-heme iron foods.

Balanced meals help stabilize blood sugar

The term “balanced diet” is frequently recommended for nutritional adequacy and sufficient energy intake. However, not everyone has the same understanding of what a balanced diet actually means. 

Ideally, a balanced diet is one that includes the major food groups in moderate portions, with minimal added sugar and processed foods. It contains protein, healthy fats, and fiber to blunt the sudden rise of blood sugar associated with refined grains and simple sugars.

Choosing foods that are lower on the glycemic index scale helps achieve a balanced diet.[] Post-meal blood sugar spikes are lower and slower after consuming low-glycemic foods. This helps prevent blood sugar rushes and crashes that get in the way of stable energy levels.

Research on lupus patients suggests that a low-glycemic index diet improves fatigue.[] It’s also a good way to eat for people with diabetes, or those who are tired of being tired all the time.

For patients who have limited baseline nutrition knowledge, has simple visuals to help guide conversations about the different food groups and how to build a balanced plate for more sustained energy.

A holistic approach to manage fatigue

Fatigue is common in those with cancer, depression, fibromyalgia, and autoimmune diseases. However, even relatively healthy people report fatigue in rates as high as 40% of the population.[]

Fatigue is one of the top-10 reasons patients make appointments to see their primary care doctors.[] Although most people can stand to benefit from a healthier diet, clinicians should be careful not to overlook other potential causes of fatigue. 

Patients complaining of fatigue should receive a comprehensive assessment of their medical history and a workup of their cardiopulmonary and neurological function.

Along with nutrition, review sleep hygiene and physical activity guidelines. Treating any underlying conditions should be the first priority. In addition, complementary therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy and acupuncture could benefit patients with fatigue from chronic disease.

What this means for you

There’s a good chance that you or your patients are dealing with fatigue. Clinicians should always do their due diligence to uncover the root causes of fatigue, but dietary changes can help even if food isn’t the only reason for being tired. A low-glycemic diet filled with anti-inflammatory nutrients and sufficient iron can help provide the sustained energy we all crave.

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