Fed up of feeling tired all the time? You aren’t alone - feeling tired is a common experience and can be caused by different factors ranging from stress to disrupted sleep (1). Fatigue may be hitting hard during these January blues: you are all social calendar-ed out, still haven’t got the house back straight after hosting over Christmas and it’s been non stop rain which can dampen the energy levels. How tired out of 10 are you feeling right now? Do you feel physically or mentally tired, or both?
There are many factors that can cause fatigue and this article is here to make you aware that nutrition may be a factor you are overlooking: good nutrition can help with exhaustion and fatigue and your poor diet may actually be a contributing factor. Your cause of tiredness or fatigue may be either medical, psychological or behavioural, even a multitude of factors affecting both your body and mind. The new year often creates a “new year, new me” approach with an overhaul of health and behavioural changes often setting us up to fail and even regress.
Here are some of the most common causes of fatigue, how many do you relate to? (2):
Drinking too much alcohol
Consuming too much caffeine
Not getting enough exercise
Never taking time to relax
Too much screen time before bed
If you are taking part in dry January, this may be helping you eliminate your alcohol intake for the month or if you joined or got back into a gym at the start of the year you may well be on your way to getting more exercise already. Whichever your causes of fatigue, try not to make too many changes at once, this will help you monitor which are affecting you and you can sustain these habits over longer periods of time; we want to aim to create a long term habit for the year rather than a 30 day quick fix.
As with a lot of health changes, the approach to improving your fatigue or tiredness should be achieved through a holistic approach; understanding the nutritional impact of your diet on tiredness is essential (2). The magnitude of change to your diet will depend on your starting point and this will vary from person to person. How would you rate your diet out of 10? Your nutritional focus should always look to be a balanced approach aiming for a varied diet to get a variety of nutrients into your body.
Here are my 5 Nutritionist top tips for a balanced and varied diet to help you start feeling more energized in your day:
Focus on food quality - reducing processed foods
Variety of proteins (animal and, or plant based)
Aiming for a minimum of 3 colours on the plate
Consuming minimum 5 fruit and vegetables per day
Keeping hydrated (2-3 litres a day)
Whilst a main focus of a person’s diet is normally on quantity (how much and calories), please don’t forget the quality of your food choices to help your body work at optimum - I once read a saying “you wouldn’t put sh*t fuel in a Ferrari, you are a Ferrari my friend”. A key focus to quality is looking to reduce the amount of processed foods you have in your diet; focusing on eating unprocessed foods can benefit with fatigue. Processed foods may slow you down and add to the sluggish, tired feeling: typically processed foods are high in preservatives, additives, trans fats (“bad” fats) and sodium (salt). Additionally, processed foods may be stripped of nutrients because they have to have a longer shelf life - think your ready meal options. Take home message: the fresher the foods, the more the nutrients (3).
Here are some examples of processed foods you can look to reduce in your diet:
Microwave or ready meals
Savoury snacks such as crisps, pies, pasties
Meat products such as bacon, sausage, ham
One of my favourite ways to look at getting a variety of nutrients in your diet and keeping the focus on quality is to think of your plate in terms of colours. Eating seasonally can help to increase your nutrient intake: fruit and vegetables in season have ripened naturally (3). AIm to get a minimum of 3 different colours on your plate, the opposite of a beige buffet at your Aunt’s birthday party - crisps, pies, sausage rolls etc… (you know the buffet table!)
Here are some examples of fruit and vegetables in season this January (4):
Purple sprouting broccoli
Did you know that nuts and seeds are some of the best foods to help fight fatigue? (3). Now I’m not expecting you to sit eating handfuls of seeds like a bird; one of my easy wins to get nuts and seeds into my diet is to add them to my main meals I am already having. I always like to think of diet and nutrients as what I can add rather than what I need to cut out, this helps me psychologically to keep enjoying foods - I find once you add or swap something as a result you remove or reduce something anyway.
Examples from my meals this week how I have added in nuts and seeds:
Chia, linseeds and pumpkin seeds added to porridge with fresh fruit
Pumpkin seeds added to a baked butternut squash and crumbled feta
Cashew nuts added on top of baked salmon in a mixed vegetable tray bake
Here are some more examples of nuts you can add to your diet this week - try and get raw and unsalted versions where possible:
If you are into your exercise and performance, two foods that may help reduce your fatigue and easily added to your diet are chia seeds and bananas. Chia seeds, well let’s face it they are small and seem to spill everywhere, but they are a great source of healthy fats, fibre and can help with the feeling of tiredness (3). A small study actually found that eating chia seeds offered as much energy as carbohydrate sports drinks (4). Another alternative to expensive sports drinks can be a banana: not only are they a cheaper source of energy they are packed with potassium, fibre and vitamins (3). A small study based on cyclists found that when eating a banana they could sustain the energy for a long ride as much as a carbohydrate sports drink (5).
So how do I know if my diet is affecting my tiredness? A great way to monitor the effects can be to keep a food diary adding in extra columns to make comments on your sleep duration and quality, your tiredness levels and times throughout the day and your overall mood. At the end of 5-7 days can you notice any patterns of your diet and tiredness levels.
Whether it’s a series of early nights with less screen time or increasing your physical activity levels each week, don’t overlook the impact of your diet, there is a lot of great research out there now looking into the relationships between food and mood which fatigue and sleep quality impacts too.
Written by Jade Mottley - Human Nutrition MSc & Sport Science BSc