If you’re experiencing a lack of energy on a daily basis (that you can't easily contribute to say, a looming work deadline that's causing you to lose sleep), you may benefit from making some tweaks to your lifestyle. According to Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist, Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, owner of ChampagneNutrition and author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep, piling your plate with more nutrient-dense, energy-boosting foods is one great way to get started.
Common causes of exhaustion
Where to begin? Many Americans are not only lacking in sleep quantity (research from 2016 found that a third don’t log enough zzzs) but also sleep quality—and both are paramount in determining your energy levels on a day-to-day basis.
Sleep disruptors are wide-ranging and can include conditions of your sleep environment (like the temperature of your bedroom), common habits (such as consuming caffeine or alcohol too close to bedtime), and things that feel inescapable in 2022 (screen time, stress levels). "Anxiety, stress, and depression can cause one’s brain to essentially be 'on' more at night, leading to more shallow sleep and less restorative sleep," psychologist and sleep-health expert Shelby Harris, PsyD, previously told Well+Good.
The foods you eat throughout the day (as well as before bed) can also help or hinder the quality of your sleep. “Diet in particular may play a role in improving [your energy levels], as the foods you eat can help fuel your body and mind and keep you mentally alert and energized,” says Hultin. Below, she outlines the top foods she recommends eating more of throughout the day to help you feel more fueled and focused and less run down.
Before we jump in, it’s important to distinguish the difference between feeling tired much of the time—an experience that's sometimes colloquially referred to as “feeling chronically fatigued”—and a serious, complex, and debilitating illness known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those afflicted with ME/CFS are frequently unable to do their usual activities: “At times, ME/CFS may confine them to bed. People with ME/CFS have overwhelming fatigue that is not improved by rest. ME/CFS may get worse after any activity, whether it’s physical or mental.” If your level of exhaustion is impacting your ability to function, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor so you can be properly diagnosed and create a treatment plan alongside a professional.
The best foods for more energy when you feel consistently run down, according to an RD
1. Whole grains
“The body needs carbohydrates for energy, and eating high-fiber, high-protein whole grains on a regular basis each day helps balance blood sugar and energy levels and provides a rich source of vitamins and minerals,” says Hultin. There are so many delicious options to choose from, from brown rice and oats to amarantha, buckwheat, farro, and quinoa. Enjoy them for breakfast (as overnight oats and oatmeal), snacks (like oat bars and trail mixes), in veggie bowls with tofu or fish, or in stir-fry meals.
2. Beans and lentils
“Include high fiber beans and lentils in at least one meal per day, as the B-vitamins and iron support red blood cell production and are critical for addressing fatigue,” advises Hultin. Beans and lentils are also packed with protein, which is essential for keeping you energized throughout the day. And because said protein comes from a plant, you’ll also get a good dose of vitamins and minerals that are energizing for your body, including electrolytes like potassium and magnesium.
3. Leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables
Green veggies, including leafy ones (like spinach and kale) and cruciferous veggies (like broccoli and brussels sprouts) have a plethora of vitamins that help fuel the body by supporting good gut health and a strong immune system. "When fatigued, you’re weaker and more susceptible to sickness, so keeping the immune system strong is pivotal," says Hultin. “Include greens with lunch or dinner daily. Eating them gives you a boost of fiber, anti-inflammatory antioxidants, and vitamin C to improve your gut, heart, and boost your immune system. They're also rich in fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamins A, E, and K.”
“All nuts are beneficial, but walnuts are a great source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids,” Hultin says. “Omega-3s are known to promote brain health and cognition, and they help lower your risk of brain disease. Walnuts are also rich in fiber, protein, and heart-healthy unsaturated fats, so add them to your breakfast or as a snack at least once per day.” Try adding walnuts to oatmeal, salads, grain bowls, homemade spreads or dips, or chia seed pudding (for a double boost—chia seeds also contain omega-3s and fiber).
“Any type of berry will give you a great boost of vitamin C and unique antioxidants, both which can help those suffering from fatigue. Berries are also high in fiber and are anti-inflammatory,” she says. All berries are going to be energizing, flavorful, and healthy, so enjoy a variety in your diet: blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and so on. Toss them into Greek yogurt, smoothies, oatmeal, or on a bed of greens. You can also pair them with protein, like grilled salmon, which also has omega-3s to boot.
Editor's note: This article was revised after receiving feedback from individuals within the myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS) community that the originally published version conflated ME/CFS with the experience of feeling frequently run down and enervated (what some may inaccurately refer to as "feeling chronically fatigued"). Well+Good regrets the error and would like to apologize for any harm it may have caused.
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