If you’re always fighting the afternoon slump, your diet may be to blame.

Constantly tired? You're not alone. According to the American Sleep Foundation, more than half of Americans report feeling sleepy throughout the day, between three and seven days per week.[i] And since sleep is an integral part of overall health and well-being, feeling tired all the time poses a problem. While aiming to sleep more seems like a sensible solution, your diet may be to blame.

You may be familiar with those tired feelings after eating a heavy meal or overeating. That’s called postprandial somnolence, aka “food coma,” and is described as feeling tired or lethargic after a big meal. While food comas are real, it’s only temporary and can be avoided by focusing on portion sizes and listening to fullness cues.

On the other hand, there is evidence that certain foods you may or may not be eating have an impact on your energy levels. Here’s what to look out for:

 

Not Eating Enough Calories

Calories are essential for giving your body the fuel it needs to function and get things done. When you eat food, the body breaks down the calories and disperses them to every cell in the body then uses it for energy. Without adequate calories in your daily diet, you will lack the energy needed to get through the day.[ii]

Most people have no idea how many calories they’re eating. In fact, studies show that most adults overestimate the calories in their food by 37 percent.[iii] That means there’s a good chance you’re undereating.

To determine your daily calorie needs, first find your basal metabolic rate, then multiply that number by your activity factor. Use the formulas below.[iv] 

For men – 900 + 10 x body weight (kg)

For women – 800 + 7 x body weight (kg)

 

Activity Factors

  • Low levels of activity (sedentary) - 1.2
  • Moderate levels of activity – 1.4
  • High levels of activity (regular exercise or manual labor) - 1.6+ 

Once you know how many calories you need to eat each day, try logging your food in a meal tracking app to see how much you’re eating now. Compare that to the number you got from the formulas above and eat more or less accordingly.

 

Skimping Out on Carbs

Carbs get such a bad rap these days. For that reason, people are afraid to eat them. The problem is, carbohydrates play an important role in the human body: they provide energy (amongst other metabolic processes).[v] Skimping out on carbs can leave you feeling sluggish and energy depleted. Most people do well with eating somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates. If you’re not sure how many carbs you should be eating, this is a great place to start.

 

Avoiding Red Meat 

Iron-deficiency anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States, particularly for women of reproductive age. It’s also a major cause of fatigue and lack of energy. Avoiding red meat, and animal proteins altogether, can put you at greater risk of iron-deficiency anemia. But since red meat is another food subject to a bad reputation, many people think they should avoid it.

If you’re avoiding animal proteins because of ethical reasons, that’s one thing. But thinking it’s “bad” for you is another. Red meat is an excellent source of protein, dietary fat, and essential minerals including iron that provide energy and keep the body functioning optimally. If you’re concerned about fat content, opt for a lean cut like filet, top round, and shoulder. 

An iron supplement can help treat iron-deficiency anemia. Be sure to look for the Ferrick form of iron and take a vitamin C supplement along with it, as vitamin C is important for iron absorption.[vi]

 

Forgetting to Drink Water 

Drinking the recommended 8 glasses of water per day is no easy feat. Fatigue and lack of energy are direct symptoms of dehydration.[vii] 

Here are some ways to increase your daily water intake:

  • Start a water challenge aiming to reach a daily water goal for 30 days.
  • Get a new water jug and always keep it with you.
  • Try adding fruit or other flavorings to plain water to make it more palatable.
  • Coffee, tea, and seltzer count as water.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables – they're naturally rich in water.
  • Drink 1 glass of water every hour.
  • Drink water with meals.
  • Drink 1 glass of water upon waking.

 

Eating Too Many Simple Carbs

Simple carbs like refined grains, sweetened beverages, and low fiber carbohydrates contribute to fluctuations in blood sugar. Extreme lows can leave you feeling sluggish and energy deprived. Simple carbohydrates digest rapidly, causing a quick spike in blood sugar followed by a blood sugar drop shortly thereafter. And having long breaks between meals keeps this roller coaster moving along.[viii]

Instead, focus on filling your day with nutrient-dense, fiber-rich carbohydrates including whole grains, breads, oatmeal, fruits, vegetables, potatoes, and the like to maintain stable blood sugar and avoid drastic crashes.

If you’re finding yourself tired often, it may be time to look at your diet and determine if it’s contributing to your lack of energy. Finding the cause of your fatigue is the first step in treatment. Talking to your healthcare provider or registered dietitian can help you pinpoint the problem and what steps to take from there.

 

 

[i] American Sleep Foundation: Sleep Statistics

[ii] National Institute of Health: Calories

[iii] Brown RE, Canning KL, Fung M, Jiandani D, Riddell MC, Macpherson AK, Kuk JL. Calorie Estimation in Adults Differing in Body Weight Class and Weight Loss Status. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016 Mar;48(3):521-6. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000000796

[iv]  National Library of Medicine: Calories: Total Macronutrient Intake, Energy Expenditure, and Net Energy Stores

[v] National Library of Medicine: Physiology, Carbohydrates

[vi] Skolmowska D, Głąbska D, Kołota A, Guzek D. Effectiveness of Dietary Interventions to Treat Iron-Deficiency Anemia in Women: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. Nutrients. 2022 Jun 30;14(13):2724. doi:10.3390/nu14132724

[vii] Liska D, Mah E, Brisbois T, Barrios PL, Baker LB, Spriet LL. Narrative Review of Hydration and Selected Health Outcomes in the General Population.

 Nutrients. 2019 Jan 1;11(1):70. doi:10.3390/nu11010070

[viii] Ludwig DS, Hu FB, Tappy L, Brand-Miller J. Dietary carbohydrates: role of quality and quantity in chronic disease. BMJ. 2018 Jun 13;361:k2340. doi:10.1136/bmj.k2340

 

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