Chronic fatigue is a far cry from “I need another cup of coffee” tiredness. It’s a debilitating condition that can impact your entire life.
To date, there haven’t been major studies on the effects of diet on chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). However, Jose Montoya, MD, a professor of medicine and a specialist at Stanford's Chronic Fatigue clinic, asserted that diet does appear to affect chronic fatigue.
“CFS can potentially be impacted by the diet, but we know very little about what could specifically work for everyone,” said Montoya. “We know that for some, certain food items make their symptoms worse or better and that people should be paying attention to those.”
While more research still needs to be done, there are plenty of things you can do to help boost energy and ensure you’re eating a healthy, well-balanced diet. Here are 12 diet hacks to try.
1. Ditch inflammatory foods
Since inflammation appears to play a role in chronic fatigue, Montoya recommends trying an anti-inflammatory diet or adding anti-inflammatory foods like fish and olive oil. Try to limit inflammatory foods like sugar, fried foods, and processed meat.
2. Stay hydrated
While drinking more water isn’t a cure for chronic fatigue, it’s still important. Dehydration is known to make fatigue worse. Staying hydrated is important for improving or maintaining health.
3. Keep a food and symptom journal
A food journal is a great way to discover foods that improve or worsen your symptoms. It’s also helpful to have a record of how you felt day to day to share with your doctor. Track how you feel and what you ate each day to find any patterns. Since 35 to 90 percent of people with chronic fatigue experience symptoms that are associated with irritable bowel syndrome, it’s important to pay special attention to any stomach upset or distress.
4. Don’t cut it all out
It’s tempting to cut out everything you can in the face of a nebulous, unrelenting disease like chronic fatigue, but there’s no evidence that a highly restrictive diet improves symptoms. Talk to your doctor before eliminating any foods from your diet to prevent overtaxing your body and cutting out important nutrients. Only attempt an elimination diet if your doctor and dietitian think it’s right for you.
5. But do experiment with your diet
Some foods may make you feel better or worse. For instance, some of Montoya’s patients have noticed improvements after removing gluten or foods high in carbohydrates from their diets while others have seen no effects. Since there’s no standard diet for CFS, it might be worth experimenting with your diet to find what makes you feel the best.
It’s best to work with your dietitian or doctor to tailor a food plan to your particular needs. You can get started on your own by paying attention to how particular foods make you feel.
“With chronic fatigue, it’s important to listen to your body and see how you feel,” said Leah Groppo, RD, CDE at Stanford Health Care. This is especially important if you think certain foods might be aggravating your symptoms or if you’re planning to make any changes to your diet.
If you do want to try something new, Groppo recommends making small changes, like adding more vegetables to your dinner each night. Stick with it for a full month before deciding if the change improved your symptoms or not. You’ll also be more likely to stick with healthier habits in the long run if you introduce them slowly.
6. Limit your caffeine intake
Caffeine seems like a great way to improve your energy, but it comes with consequences. Caffeine can give you a false sense of energy and lead you to overdo it, according to Montoya. A little bit of caffeine may be fine for some people. Just be careful to not overexert yourself and make sure your intake doesn’t impact your sleep.
7. Try smaller, more frequent meals
Many people with chronic fatigue often feel too tired to eat or don’t feel hungry. If you’re losing weight or struggling to eat enough throughout the day, Groppo recommends trying smaller meals more frequently or adding small snacks between each meal. Eating more frequently may help keep your energy up. Smaller portions may be easier to tolerate as well.
8. Pay attention to sugar
Sugar can also increase your energy temporarily, but the crash afterward can compound your tiredness. Instead of reaching for foods with refined sugar, Groppo suggests eating naturally sweet foods with a bit of protein to help even out your blood sugar and energy levels. Berries with plain, unsweetened yogurt is a great option.
9. Go all in on veggies
Fill up on nonstarchy veggies. Try to include vegetables of all colors throughout the day to get their unique nutrients and benefits. Red vegetables, for instance, are full of phytonutrients that act as antioxidants and help reduce inflammation. Yellow veggies contain important vitamins and minerals like vitamins A, C, and B6.
10. Skip heavily processed foods
Heavily processed foods typically have fewer nutrients than their whole food counterparts. It’s important to load up on plants — like legumes, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — to support your body’s needs.
Don’t know what to eat? Groppo recommends sticking with foods that are “as close to how Mother Nature made it as possible.” Choose popped corn instead of corn flakes or brown rice instead of pasta, for example.
11. Top it all off with healthy fats
A sprinkle of walnuts, a few slices of avocado, a couple of ounces of trout: It can be easy to add healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids throughout the day. Healthy fats are important for brain and heart health, and they can also help reduce inflammation.
12. Meal plan and prep when you can
One of the best ways to ensure a nutritious diet is to meal plan and prep food ahead of time. On days that you have more energy, plan out what you will eat for the rest of the week and prep your basic ingredients or cook the meals all the way through. Your meals will be all ready to go. You won’t have to worry about what you’ll eat on a given day. Even better: Enlist someone to help you so you can get more done without exhausting yourself.
We’ve all been told over and over that what you eat affects how you feel. That’s no less true with chronic fatigue. While there aren’t any specific diets for chronic fatigue, a balanced, healthy diet can be a key part of your treatment plan. Just be sure you always talk to your doctor and dietitian before making substantial changes to your diet or adding any supplements.