Fatigue and diet

Step 1: Understanding the relationship between fatigue and food
You feel tired, listless and your energy levels are low. Can changing your eating pattern help?

Knowing the difference between just being tired and the possible onset of fatigue can make a big difference. It's not just a matter of getting a couple of hours' extra sleep, it can be something serious.

Causes of fatigue or tiredness can include:

  • Physical ailments including anaemia, diabetes, thyroid imbalance
  • Infections caused by viruses or bacteria such as colds, flu
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Stress
  • Sleep problems
  • Lack of exercise
  • Overtraining
  • Dehydration
  • Eating disorders
  • A diet not high enough in the right foods

Step 2: Adopt healthy habits
If there is no illness, consider the following approaches:

  • Exercise gradually but steadily
  • Learn stress-reduction techniques such as deep breathing or meditation
  • Set priorities and manage your time and energy efficiently
  • Practice good sleep habits
  • Don't consume more than one cup of coffee daily
  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Don't fill up on high-fat or sugary foods, which tend to make you feel sluggish

Step 3: The basic principles of eating for more energy

What you should do

  • Stock up on energy: Don’t eat too little food to supply the amount of energy you need. If you exercise at high intensity, you may need 2 000 kcal or more, but an inactive person’s energy requirements may only be about 1 500 kcal a day. If you exercise a lot, consider using carbo-boosters in liquid or solid form, like energy bars or drinks.
  • Fluctuations in your insulin levels can lead to mood swings and fatigue. To combat these, eat five to six smaller meals per day rather than two to three big ones. Choose carbohydrates with a low glycaemic index (GI) rather than those with a high GI. Eat wholewheat pasta rather than white or wholewheat bread, choose Basmati rice or couscous over white or brown rice, avoid sweets in favour of fruit, and pick oats porridge or bran cereals over other cereals.
  • If you exercise at high intensity, make sure your intake of protein is not too low. An average inactive woman needs 120–150 g cooked meat daily, and a man about 180-250 g (a 100 g portion of meat or fish provides about 25 g of protein, an egg about 7 g and a 300 ml glass of milk, about 10 g). If you're active, work it out from here: a 70 kg athlete participating in resistance and/or endurance training needs to consume between 91 and 126 g of protein per day. High-protein foods also contain quite a lot of fat. Rather use low-fat milk and dairy products, lean meat and fish and don’t add too much fat during food preparation.
  • Drink six to eight glasses (1,5–2 l) of water daily.
  • Eat at least five fresh fruits and two big ladles of vegetables daily.

What to avoid

  • No more than four to five tablespoons of polyunsaturated margarine or cold-pressed oil or salad dressing. This will supply 60-80 g of fat to the diet – more than enough!
  • Don't fill up on sugary or fatty foods when you feel tired and listless at 3pm. These foods will worsen your feeling of fatigue.

(Dr Ingrid van Heerden, Health24, updated April 2008)

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