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If you’re an adult, you know what it’s like to plain run out of energy. Sometimes it’s because you’re tired from lack of sleep. (These foods can help you sleep.) Sometimes you’ve been burning the candle at both ends. But if all the other factors are in place, and you’re still feeling that drain, then maybe there’s one place you haven’t looked: your diet.
Work with a physician to rule out other lifestyle and health factors impacting your sleep, says Sharon Palmer, registered dietitian and blogger at The Plant-Powered Dietitian. Then you can turn to the little things in your diet that might be the cause of your fatigue.
1. Missing out on Healthy Carbs
If you’re cutting all carbs on Monday to make up for a weekend full of pancake brunches and burgers, you might be lacking what you need to feel energized and focused. According to Palmer, if you aren’t getting the necessary fill of carbohydrates, it could leave you feeling sluggish. But not just any carbohydrates: healthy carbohydrates are our body’s preferred source of energy, she says. If all you’re eating is bread, cake and pasta, you’re missing out on fiber and other important nutrients. This could also be the root of regular energy dips.
“These starchy foods have had the nutrients stripped away, especially the fiber,” Palmer says. “They can be absorbed very quickly into the blood stream. You get this peak of blood glucose where you can feel a surge of energy and then it drops off quickly.”
Instead, turn to whole grains (here’s how to cook them right) and healthy carbohydrates. Palmer suggests fiber-rich bread, legumes, whole fruits and vegetables to stabilize your blood sugar and sustain your energy throughout the day. “These foods have this nice, slow glucose response where it gradually provides blood glucose, which is our form of energy and then it tapers off.”
2. Getting Too Much Caffeine (Without Trying)
“Coffee, overall, has proven to be a healthful habit. All the research in the last five years has been very promising, showing benefits,” Palmer says. But you may be getting too much of it. We all have different tolerance levels for caffeine. “What is a good amount of caffeine for me, could be different for someone else,” she says.
According to Mayo Clinic, up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day appears to be safe. That’s roughly the amount of caffeine in four cups of coffee. There’s also a right and wrong time of day to drink coffee.
If you’re experiencing stress, anxiety, nervousness, irritability or big dips in energy, they’re signs of over-caffeination, which can easily happen. “You can go to a coffee shop and have a coffee drink that has twice as much caffeine as a home-brewed cup of coffee,” Palmer says. Tune into your body for the right amount of coffee for you.
3. Starting the Day Without Enough Protein
If you’re hoping to start off the day strong—and avoid the 11 a.m. slump right before lunch—have a balanced breakfast. Whereas the typical American breakfast can be very high in refined carbohydrates, you should have a mix of macronutrients at your meal. An easy way to think of macronutrients is that they’re the most fundamental building blocks of energy and nutrition in our body: fats + carbs + protein.
Instead of a bowl of cold cereal that is high in refined carbs and low in protein, try a macro-friendly breakfast like a hearty egg-based breakfast, protein-packed pancakes with fruit, or yogurt with granola.
“That protein is going to help delay the glucose response to your meal and slow it down,” Palmer says. “Plus, choose whole grains instead of refined grains. Things like oatmeal porridge instead of refined breakfast cereals. Have whole grain toast instead of white toast.”
4. Not Drinking Enough Liquid
Dehydration can be the cause for midday fatigue or lightheadedness. Mayo Clinic recommends about 11.5 cups of fluid per day for women and 15.5 cups a day for men, but it can vary person to person. It doesn’t all have to come in the form of water, although water is a healthy choice. Count all of your beverages combined, plus consider the water you get from your food (think juicy fruits). Make sure to sip on water throughout the day to ensure you’re functioning at your best.
5. Going Too Long Without Eating
If you’re drowsy or sleepy before lunch (hours after eating breakfast) or during the long commute back home before dinner, you may be in need of a small snack to maintain your blood sugar. Stick to healthy snacks with a mix of healthy carbs, protein and fat.
“It can be a 150-calorie snack like a handful of nuts, which has fats, protein and carbohydrates. Just a small snack will provide a little glucose boost until the next meal,” Palmer says.
6. Eating a Huge Lunch
Some days just call for an extra-stuffed burrito or a big bowl of pad Thai. (Hey, you worked out this morning!) But that huge meal can lead to your afternoon downfall. Afternoon sluggishness can hit after a large meal, Palmer says.
“If you’re struggling with this issue, it would better to have small meals with some snacks in between. When you’re overeating and you feel like your digestive system is working overtime to deal with the large load, that can make you feel sleepy and not perform at your best.”
To help figure out if you’ve had enough, Palmer points to a Japanese tradition called hara hachi bu, which essentially translates to eating until you’re 80 percent full and stopping there. “You eat until you feel about two-thirds full. It takes a while for the brain to recognize that sense of fullness. So many of us eat until we just can’t take another bite. And at that point, we have overeaten. You still feel like you can fit more in your tummy. That’s a nice point to feel at your best.”
What we eat and drink can play a huge role in how much energy we feel throughout the day. It’s, of course, important to get enough sleep and exercise, and reduce stress, but don’t forget the importance of a balanced diet. Like the saying goes, you are what you eat, so focus on healthy, high-energy foods to keep you going all day long.