Avoid These 6 Foods to Preserve Your Energy

By Samantha Cassetty, R.D.
Reviewed by Daniel Lew, M.D.
October 31, 2022

Fatigue is a common complaint, especially among people managing a chronic condition. You may not be able to prevent fatigue completely if a disease or medication is causing it, but there are things you can do to minimize it. Start by avoiding or limiting the foods that can interfere with your energy level.

“It has to do with several factors, including rates of digestion, blood-sugar balance, and even chronic inflammation in the body,” explains Ginger Hultin, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Seattle who owns Champagne Nutrition and wrote the How to Eat to Beat Disease Cookbook. “There's evidence that diets high in added fat, sugar, and highly processed foods may cause inflammation in the body, which is a sure way to hurt your energy levels,” she explains.

If you’re fighting fatigue, limiting certain foods may help. Here are foods you may want to watch to protect your energy—along with healthier alternatives you can choose instead.

1. Refined Grains

Refined grains are used to make doughy carbohydrates, like bagels, pizza crust, white bread, and certain cereals and crackers. These foods have been associated with higher levels of inflammation, which can promote persistent fatigue, according to several studies, including one published in 2018 in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

Plus, Hultin says that refined carbs are digested quickly, leading to a spike in blood-sugar levels. “This causes the insulin hormone to spike. Then, as your blood-sugar levels come back down, your body starts asking for more carbs/sugar to get blood sugar stabilized again,” she says. “This will absolutely put you on an energy roller coaster with crashes throughout the day due to the big swings in blood sugar and hormones.”

Rather than shunning all grains, choose whole grains, like whole-wheat bread and brown rice, over refined ones. These are less likely to cause your blood sugar to fluctuate wildly. ​​Also, whole grains have higher fiber content compared to refined grains, so they keep you feeling full longer and prevent overeating, which can lead to fatigue. Whole grains that are especially high in fiber content include rye and barley.

2. Diet Foods

If you’re eating meals that are too light, you’re missing the chance to give your body the energy it needs to operate at its best. Many diet-style frozen entrees are less than 300 calories, which isn’t enough of a meal for most people. Restricting your caloric intake reduces your overall energy level and also deprives you of important nutrients. What’s more, those calories often come from energy-depleting refined grains, like white rice. Meals like this also lack fruits, veggies, and other whole foods that can help lower inflammation and support better energy levels.

If you’re seeking the convenience of a microwavable meal, choose one between 350 and 600 calories, and make sure it contains whole-foods, like veggies, fruits, lean proteins, and not a lot of artificial ingredients. If your meal is on the lighter side, consider adding extras, like avocado slices to a Mexican entree or canned white beans to an Italian meal. Other foods you can add include a whole egg with the yolk or unsalted nuts. The added healthy calories can help you feel fuller and more energetic for longer.

3. Fast Foods

A typical fast food meal is loaded with salt, fat, refined grains, and added sugars. These are energy-draining substances on their own, even more so when combined on a plate, so you’re likely to feel sluggish after eating fast food.

The high fat content in fast food meals is especially bad for you because it can actually negatively affect your sleep, causing problems such as poor sleep quality and daytime sleepiness, according to research.

“Many fast food meals are also very concentrated in calories, so your body is digesting a lot of calories and fat all at once,” says Hultin. High sodium intake can also cause fluid retention, she adds, which can cause lower energy levels for some people. If you’re choosing a fast food meal, try to balance it by eating lots of fruits and veggies and other whole foods at the rest of your meals.

4. Processed Snacks

Ultra-processed snacks—including many chips, pretzels, snack bars, and crackers—may have a multitude of energy-sapping ingredients, such as excess added sugars, refined grains, pro-inflammatory oils (such as soy, vegetable, or corn oils), and salt.

And let’s not forget how easy it can be to overeat snack foods. Think about how much longer it would take to eat a small baked potato compared to a small bag of potato chips. When you eat too much, your body spends a lot of energy digesting food, which may leave you feeling wiped out.

Instead of a processed snack, try pairing a fruit or veggie with some nuts, nut butter, a whole egg, and/or Greek yogurt. This filling combo of fiber, healthy carbs, and protein supports better energy.

5. Sugary Foods and Drinks

Though it’s a commonly held belief, sugar doesn’t give you an energy rush. In fact, high sugar intake inhibits your body’s production of a hormone called orexin, which helps you feel awake. When researchers analyzed data from 31 studies that looked at the impact of sugary foods on mood and energy levels, they found those foods can contribute to fatigue and that people feel more tired than before within 30 minutes of consuming something sweet.

Many sugary foods are also high on the glycemic index (GI), a measure of how quickly foods raise your blood sugar. And separate research connects high GI foods with higher levels of fatigue. It’s best to keep your added sugars intake to below 25 grams per day for women, and below 36 grams per day for men.

6. Fried Foods

French fries, potato chips, and other unhealthy fried foods may also contribute to poor energy levels. “Foods that are high in fat, like fried foods, are slower to digest and can leave you feeling full and bloated. Many people find that fried foods upset their digestion, which is a sure way to feel your energy dip,” says Hultin.

One study looked at the impact of different eating styles on a set of truck drivers with at least six years of truck driving experience. The researchers’ goal was to see if eating habits influence driving errors. Their findings suggested that unhealthy snacks, such as fried and sugary foods, increased fatigue and were associated with unsafe driving behaviors.

If you’re craving fried foods, try using a healthier coating, such as whole wheat breadcrumbs or chickpea flour, and air fry (or bake) them instead. These hacks result in a healthier meal that tastes fried but isn’t as likely to cause your energy to plummet.

Bottom line: If you feel tired despite getting plenty of sleep, it may be time to take a closer look at your eating habits. By replacing energy-zapping foods like the ones mentioned above with healthier alternatives, you may be able to boost, or at least preserve, your energy levels.

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