Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
We’re all feeling drained right now. According to findings from a recent survey, 3 in 5 people report feeling more tired than ever before. Whether you’re battling the afternoon energy slump or can’t start your day without a few cups of coffee, you might want to look not at your sleep schedule, but your diet.
That’s right: Your daily diet might be affecting your energy levels. Stephanie Nelson, MS, RD, a Registered Dietitian and MyFitnessPal’s in-house nutrition expert and nutrition scientist, explains how your eating patterns might make you feel sleepy or sluggish. Here are three little-known ways your diet might be impacting your energy levels.
1. Your meal size and frequency don’t suit your body’s needs
How much you’re eating in a single sitting, and how often you’re eating throughout the day, can have a surprising effect on your energy levels.
“Focus on your meal size and frequency. Meal size and timing have a big impact on your energy levels and there is no one-size-fits-all approach that works for everyone, or even one unique way of doing things that will work 100% of the time for every individual,” Nelson says.
If you’ve ever felt lethargic after a big meal (looking at you, Thanksgiving turkey!), you know just how noticeably meal size can make a difference. To determine if you might want to shift how much you’re eating or how often you eat, take note of your habits throughout the day – and how energetic you are afterwards.
The effect can vary individually. As Nelson explains, “Some people feel more energized when eating three large meals a day, while others hit their optimum energy levels when they have smaller meals with snacks in between. For some, smaller portions will make them feel less tired because their body isn’t working too hard to digest as hard after eating. For others, their meal schedules may be irregular based on their lifestyle and their bodies may respond best to larger scheduled meals to help regulate their metabolism.”
2. You’re eating more sugar than you realize
You already know sugar can mess with everything from your blood glucose levels to your mood. And the crash that happens after consuming sugar is real; it can send your energy spiraling. But even if you think you’ve cut back on sugar, you might be consuming some in unexpected ways.
“Pay attention to where sugars are coming into your diet and be on the lookout for sources of added sugar. High-sugar foods and beverages – like sweets and sodas – can lead to energy crashes and early hunger,” Nelson explains.
Some of the biggest culprits of sneaky sugars are “health” foods that contain added sugars. “Sweetened coffees are supposed to energize you with caffeine, but then will often cause a sugar crash,” Nelson says. “[And] yogurt is often considered a healthy food, but sweetened yogurts can carry up to 15 grams of extra added sugar per serving. The same goes for instant oatmeal; the flavored oatmeals have lots of added sugar that can cause an energy crash later.”
3. Your meals need better balance
If you’ve been eating an imbalanced diet, leaning into some nutrients harder than others, your energy levels can suffer. Missing out on certain energy-boosting vitamins and minerals can lead to lethargy, fogginess, and all-around low energy.
“Balance your meals and snacks. Fruits and veggies provide vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates which help support energy levels, while healthy fats and proteins slow down digestion to provide a sustained energy release for a longer period of time,” Nelson recommends. She also suggests achieving balance with energy-boosting food pairings. “Try mixing two types of food that each bring energizing benefits, like fruit and nuts, cheese and veggies, or fruit and yogurt.”
For more on increasing your energy levels naturally with your diet, keep reading: