Food & Fatigue – Eating for Energy!
By Charlotte Foster BSc (Hons), MSc, RD.
How are you? Busy? Tired? Exhausted?
Many of us can relate to the rat race of early starts and late nights – we are busy, busy, busy and it can really take its toll!
Getting the balance of life’s demands during daylight hours can be a real challenge. Commuting long distances, juggling work/ friends/ family/ partners/gym/ exercise/sleep etc – life can be exhausting!
Sleep and exercise are definitely important, but is there anything we can do in our diets to help boost our energy levels?
Having recently returned from a 3 week break from work to get married, I am reflecting on my own lifestyle and the importance of implementing good dietary strategies to stave off fatigue…
I hark on about this time and time again, because it is so easy to slip into bad habits and by eating regularly we can regulate our blood sugar levels better and provide our body with a regular steady supply of nutrition and calories to sustain us through the day.
Breakfast – break the fast!
By breaking the fast – breakfast (or the first meal of the day) helps to kick start our bodies, providing the “fuel” we need for the day ahead. The whole cheesy analogy of putting petrol into a car to get it going is a cliché for a reason…. there is some truth in it! For people in the UK, largely due to popular food choices, breakfast often provides an opportunity for obtaining a significant proportion of our fibre, calcium and iron intakes for the day ahead. Interestingly, evidence also suggests that breakfast skippers are more likely to gain weight, as summarised nicely by the National Obesity Observatory.
Fruits and Veg- the faithful friends!
How many portions are recommended by public health guidelines for good health? AT LEAST 5 portions, with some new evidence saying it should be nearer 7 portions a day (1).
But why? Because, they contain fibre, minerals, and a range of vitamins, many of which are antioxidants which are cardio protective (helpful for heart health) and have an anti-carcinogenic effect by stabilising “free radicals” (pollutants) which the body is exposed to.
Iron is a vital mineral that the body needs for the production of red blood cells. Haemoglobin binds to oxygen and transports it around the body to. A lack of iron can lead to iron deficiency anaemia resulting in symptoms including:
- Fatigue / lethargy (feeling exhausted)
- Pale complexion
- Heart palpitations
Now, there are two forms of iron in the diet “haem” iron (found in red meat and other animal sources) and “non haem” (e.g. fortified breakfast cereals, dark leafy vegetables e.g. spinach or watercress; beans and pulses; nuts and seeds; tofu and certain dried fruits). Haem iron is absorbed easily in the small intestines whilst non haem iron is absorbed in line with our body’s demands (2).
Vitamin C is required to help increase the absorption of iron and phenolic compounds and phytates can inhibit iron absorption (2).
For more information check out The British Nutrition Foundation’s fact sheet on iron and iron deficiency anaemia.
Boost the B vitamins!
There are a range of B vitamins, and they all have slightly different roles, but the majority of them play a part in helping with the energy metabolism of food.
The main B vitamins are:
- thiamin (vitamin B1)
- riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- niacin (vitamin B3)
- pantothenic acid
- vitamin B6
- biotin (vitamin B7)
- folic acid
- vitamin B12
Without adequate folate or vitamin B12, anaemias can develop. You cannot store B vitamins in the body (similarly) to vitamin C, as they are water soluble.
For more information about the role of each of the B vitamins and for sources and recommended intakes check out NHS Choices article.
The “sleep boosting” minerals – magnesium & calcium
There are some claims that magnesium and calcium can help with sleep disturbance and insomnia.
One study looked at a 500mg supplementation of magnesium on insomnia and found that there were statistically significant results for participants taking a supplement of magnesium in several subjective parameters including sleep efficiency, sleep time and sleep onset latency, early morning awakening. However, there was no significant difference between groups in regards to total sleep (3). Magnesium is also essential for energy release from food (4).
Good sources of magnesium include (4):
- green leafy vegetables e.g. spinach
- brown rice
- bread (especially wholegrain)
- dairy foods
Good sources of calcium include (5):
- Dairy foods e.g. milk, yoghurt, cheese.
- Dark leafy vegetables e.g. broccoli and cabbage
- Soya drinks fortified with calcium
- Foods made with fortified flour
- Sardines, white bait and pilchards (fish where you eat the bones)
Glycaemic index – choose slow releasing carbohydrates and watch the sugar!
Glycaemic index (GI) is a measure of the effect that certain foods have on the blood sugar levels. The higher the GI, the higher the blood sugar level will rise following consumption and digestion.
Most of us in the UK are eating far too much sugar. Sugar is an energy (calorie) dense source in the diet and can be useful to provide short and sharp bursts of energy in times of need. However, high sugar containing products will cause a sharp rise but also a sharp decline in blood sugar levels which can leave us feeling exhausted. Also, too much sugar has been linked to being overweight/obese.
For more information on sugar make sure you read DINE’s article here.
By choosing foods with a lower glycaemic index, will help sustain our energy levels for longer. As outlined in the diagram below, the carbohydrates with a lower GI will not cause such a dramatic rise and fall in blood sugar level, providing a gentle and slow release of energy to sustain you across the day.
For more information about glycaemic index click the British Dietetic Association fact sheet.
The effects of low GI & high GI foods on blood glucose levels (6).
Hydrate! Curb the caffeine and watch the alcohol!
When we are dehydrated we can often feel exhausted (7). Making sure you are drinking enough fluid is very important, and most of us don’t drink enough.
Caffeine is a stimulant and so can help boost energy levels during certain times, but too much caffeine can disturb sleep patterns and stop you switching off at bed time. Herbal teas can provide a good alternative if you are craving a hot beverage and certain ones e.g. chamomile tea, are thought to evoke a calming, soothing and relaxing effect on the body.
Alcohol can also lead to a disturbed night by altering our sleep cycle and disrupting the deep sleep and REM sleep patterns and for some it can also make us snore! (8).
Both caffeine and alcohol can cause a diuretic effect, causing us to need the toilet more and can exacerbate dehydration.
What about supplements?
There are so many pills and supplements available on the market promising to “cure” our tiredness for good. Common supplements/ products that are often promoted as beneficial for boosting energy include:
- B vitamins
- Energy drinks
- Glucose tablets
- Caffeine tablets
The reality is, we are designed to eat food! Supplements for some people are sometimes necessary, but for many of us we can obtain all the nutrition we need through food.
By making simple dietary changes e.g. boosting the fruit and vegetable contents of our diets, choosing complex carbohydrates and reducing sugar, caffeine and alcohol, we can radically alter our body’s nutritional status and feel the energetic benefits of a healthy and balanced diet.
If your fatigue persists, it could be a symptom of a more chronic condition e.g. anaemia (iron of B vitamin related). If you have any concerns, be sure to book an appointment to see your GP.
1: Oyebode, O., Gordon-Dseagu, A., Mindell J.S. (2014) Fruit and vegetable consumption and all-cause, cancer and CVD mortality: analysis of Health Survey for England data. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health ; published online.
2: The British Dietetic Association. Iron Food Factsheet. Available at https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/iron-rich-foods-iron-deficiency.html [last accessed 18/8/21]
3: Abbasi, B., Kimijagar, M., Saeghnijat, K., Shirazi, M.M., Hedayati, M. & Rashidkhani B. (2012). The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Journal of Research in Medical Sciences 17(12);1161-1169.
4: NHS Choices (2015) Vitamins and minerals –Others. Available at http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/vitamins-minerals/Pages/Other-vitamins-minerals.aspx#magnesium [last accessed 22/11/16].
(5): NHS Choices (2015) Calcium. Available at http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/vitamins-minerals/Pages/Calcium.aspx [last accessed 22/11/16].
(6): Glycaemic Index Foundation (2016). What is Glycaemic Index? Available at http://www.gisymbol.com/about/glycemic-index/ [last accessed 22/11/16].
(7): NHS Choices (2015) symptoms of dehydration. Available at http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Dehydration/Pages/Symptoms.aspx [last accessed 22/11/16].
(8): Drink Aware (2016) Alcohol and sleep. Available at https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/effects-on-the-body/alcohol-and-sleep [last accessed 22/11/16].