Some foods can drain your energy—here's what to skip to avoid that 3 p.m. slump.

Karla Walsh
March 20, 2020
Getty / Peter Dazeley

You are what you eat, the old chestnut says, and for many Americans, what we eat is a whole lot of energy-draining items. That might be part of the reason why 2.5 million Americans struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and millions more crawl through the day with less-than-optimal levels of get-up-and-go.

"Your body needs food just like a car needs gas. If you are not eating enough, it's like running on fumes. And if you under-consume nutrients or over-consume the wrong foods, it's similar to putting regular gasoline in a premium sports car. It won't run efficiently," says Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., founder of Nutrition Starring You and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.

Steady energy starts with consistent fuel. Translation? If you're seeking to eat for energy, you might want to reconsider that intermittent fasting plan.

"To keep energy strong and blood sugar stable all day, focus on consistent intake. Going too long between meals may cause blood sugars to dip creating that 'hangry' feeling, which is associated with fatigue as well as hunger," says Jenna A. Werner, R.D., creator of Happy Strong Healthy.

Related: How to Make an Emergency Snack Kit to Avoid Hanger

On the opposite end of the spectrum, eating too much can make you feel ready for a nap.

"The process of digestion requires energy and larger meals may require more energy to digest, making you feel a little sluggish," Werner says.

Aim to eat every three to five hours, balancing your total calorie needs for the day throughout those meals and snacks. For example, a moderately active, 140-pound 35-year-old woman should eat around 1,900 calories to maintain her weight. This might break down to something like:

  • Breakfast @ 8 a.m.: 450 calories
  • Lunch @ 12 p.m.: 550 calories
  • Snack @ 3:30 p.m.: 300 calories
  • Dinner @ 7 p.m.: 600 calories

Related: Check Out Our 14-Day 2,000-Calorie Meal Plan

Now that you know when and how much to eat, let's talk about what—or more accurately what not—to eat for energy. The dietitians we spoke with suggest steering clear of these fatigue-causing foods.

Pasta

While pasta parties might work well for high school cross-country runners, they're not the wisest choice for energy for a regularly active adult.

"Eating a meal that's primarily carbohydrates, like a bowl of pasta with sauce but no veggies and protein, causes your blood sugar to rise really quickly. Your body then produces insulin to regulate your blood sugar back to a normal range," Werner says.

It's easy for the body to produce too much insulin to try to balance things out, which drops blood sugars too far—making you feel tired and hungry way quicker than if you ate a more balanced meal.

Fatigue food fix: If you're craving a serving of spaghetti, try these energy-boosting ideas to amp it up. Add protein and fiber-rich vegetables on top, and opt for whole-wheat or an alternative pasta with more protein and fiber than white pasta, if possible. For an even better energy boost, swap in vitamin-rich zoodles or do half pasta half zoodles. Our healthiest one-pot pastas are a great place to start for inspiration.

Pretzels

Whether you reach for twists or sticks, this high-carb snack is guilty of the same energy crimes as pasta.

"Any food that's high in sugar or fat but low in quality nutrients, including protein and fiber, can increase fatigue. Foods like pretzels that are essentially just white flour are also shy of protein and fiber and may not provide a sustained source of energy," Harris-Pincus says.

Fatigue food fix: If you're craving a handful of pretzels, dunk them in 2 tablespoons of nut butter or a ¼ cup of hummus. The fiber and healthy fats will give them some extra staying power.

Fried Foods

From fried chicken to French fries, the body faces a formidable challenge breaking down everything that's going on inside your favorite fried foods. The impact is amplified by the fact that these items are often sold in super-sized servings.

"Think of how eating an extra-value fast food meal makes you feel like you need a nap right after lunch. If your meal is really high in calories or too large, so much energy is spent trying to digest it that less is available for other processes," Harris-Pincus says.

The body diverts energy from your muscles to tackle the important task at hand: Digesting the large, calorie-laden meal in your stomach.

Fatigue food fix: Substitute air-fried or oven-fried variations of your fast food favorites (try our best healthy fried food makeovers!) and aim to balance out the overall macronutrient level of your meal by including some protein.

Donuts

If you've ever grabbed a donut for breakfast on the way to work, only to find yourself at the vending machine (or at least the coffee machine) at 10 a.m., know you're not alone.

"Foods that are highly processed and high in simple, refined carbs but lower in protein and fiber will be absorbed quickly," says Harris-Pincus, and fried, frosting-topped or glazed donuts are a prime example. "This will give an initial energy boost but your blood sugar levels will likely drop quickly again, which would make you feel zapped of energy."

As a general rule, if your entire meal or snack is beige, it's likely an energy-drainer.

"The more natural colors that appear on your plate, the more nutrients there will be your meal. If you think about how low-nutrient foods impact the way you feel vs. higher-nutrient foods—it's easy to see why a diet richer in nutrients from colorful fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean proteins can provide you with more energy," Werner says.

Fatigue food fix: Next time you're in the mood for a pastry, try a whole-grain muffin or quick bread that's spiked with fresh fruit for a fiber and vitamin boost. Enjoy a serving alongside a cup of Greek yogurt or a hard-boiled egg for a balanced breakfast or snack. If you're still really raving that donut, try sharing half with a friend!

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