5 Foods To Eat When You’re Feeling Low-Energy and Overly Exhausted, According to an RD

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It’s pretty common to feel run down and drained in the current climate. (I mean, have you read the news in the last couple of years?) However, there is a difference between tiredness caused by a night or two of crumby sleep and a steady state of enervation that doesn’t seem to improve as the days—or weeks, or months—progress.

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 Ginger Hultin Nutrition and author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep, piling your plate with more nutrient-dense, foods that increase energy is one great way to get started.

Experts In This Article

The important difference between feeling tired and having a chronic illness

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 coping with chronic fatigue and 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.

Additionally, for people with ME/CFS diet might not always be the solution. In other words, foods that may increase energy levels for one person, may not work for another with this condition. As such, working with a medical professional to best address your symptoms is again advised.

What can make feeling constantly tired worse?

Where to begin? If ME/CFS is ruled out, there are other factors that can contribute to feeling low in energy. For starters, many Americans are not only lacking in sleep quantity (research shows 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. And believe it or not, your age itself is not necessarily to blame for causing low energy in women—there are a whole host of lifestyle factors that play a much larger role.

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 or consuming not enough foods that make you sleepy naturally), and things that feel inescapable in 2024 (screen time and 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.

Additionally, 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,” Hultin says. Ahead, she outlines the top foods she recommends eating more of throughout the day to help you increase your energy to feel less tired and run down.

Best foods for naturally increasing energy levels

1. Whole grains

According to Hultin, carbs = energy. “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,” she says. The good news? 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

Beans and lentils are often praised for their longevity-boosting benefits, but Hultin says they're also great for helping give you a midday boost. “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,” Hultin says. 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," Hultin says. “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," she says.

4. Walnuts

When it comes to boosting energy, Hultin says walnuts are superior. “All nuts are beneficial, but walnuts are a great source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids,” she 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,” she says.

In addition to walnuts' energizing benefits, a Harvard University study found that eating walnuts can potentially boost longevity. In the study, researchers determined that people who ate a serving of walnuts five times a week experienced the benefit of a 14 percent reduced mortality risk, a 25 percent reduced risk of dying from heart disease, and an overall gain of 1.3 years of life expectancy compared to those who didn’t practice this ritual.

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).

5. Berries

Hultin welcomes all types of berry for boosting energy levels. “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.

Foods that can make you feel sleepy or tired

1. Tryptophan-rich foods

Foods that contain tryptophan, an amino acid known to boost feel good and sleep-inducing hormones serotonin and melatonin, can potentially put you into a slumber. This includes foods like turkey (hi, post-Thanksgiving-meal nap), salmon, eggs, tofu, lentils, and spinach.

2. Vitamin D-rich foods

Vitamin D deficiencies are linked to poorer quality of sleep. As such, if sleep is on your mind, foods that make you sleepy, like those high in vitamin D, will do the trick. This includes mushrooms and eggs.

3. Magnesium-rich foods

Magnesium may come as no surprise, it's one of the key nutrients that supports the body's natural melatonin production. As such, if maintaining energy during the day is the goal, you may want to reserve foods like almonds, bananas, and peanut butter for a pre-bedtime snack.

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. 

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Abboud, Myriam. “Vitamin D Supplementation and Sleep: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Intervention Studies.” Nutrients vol. 14,5 1076. 3 Mar. 2022, doi:10.3390/nu14051076
  2. Liu, Xiaoran et al. “Association of Walnut Consumption with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality and Life Expectancy in U.S. Adults.” Nutrients vol. 13,8 2699. 4 Aug. 2021, doi:10.3390/nu13082699

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