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Always sleepy? These 6 common foods might be to blame

If you’re fighting fatigue, what's on your plate may be to blame.

Always tired? You’re not alone — and it's likely not just because of the time change. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the vast majority of Americans report feeling sleepy at some point during the week, with the average experiencing fatigue three days per week. Of course, several factors could be contributing to your sleepiness, but your diet can play a big part.

You can probably relate to the drowsy-inducing effects of a holiday meal, but the same physiological reasons for this energy drain apply to any big meal. At the same time, there’s evidence that certain foods can lower your energy more than others. For instance, people who eat a high glycemic index diet — one that’s higher in sugary foods and processed grains and lower in fiber-filled fare — report higher levels of fatigue. Heavily processed foods also contribute to inflammation, a silent phenomenon involved in numerous diseases, from Type 2 diabetes to cancer. While silent, this underlying inflammation is connected with lower energy levels.  

If you’re eating these foods regularly, cutting back may help you boost your energy and feel better overall.


Even if it has caffeine, the sugary effects of drinking cola can make you feel less perky. This is because sugary drinks speed through your system, causing an instant rise — and then fall — of blood-sugar levels. These swings can take a toll on your energy. Plus, researchers who looked at 31 studies involving the effects of sugary foods and drinks on energy levels found that people felt more tired shortly after consuming a sugary substance. Sugary foods also promote inflammation, which can contribute to your energy slump.

If you’re a soda drinker, consider a step-down approach, having less and less of it each day. Water and unsweetened, naturally-flavored seltzer water are the best ways to hydrate, but diet or zero-sugar soda may be an appropriate in-between step.

Diet frozen entrees

Calories from food are a form of energy, so at the very least, it’s important to make sure you’re fueling your body with the energy you need. Many frozen entrees have the calorie equivalent of a snack, so they don’t provide enough fuel to satisfy and energize most adults. Plus, the few calories these entrees have typically come from heavily processed starches, like white rice and mashed potatoes, not to mention sugary and high-sodium sauces. These meals also lack adequate portions of veggies and fruits and other whole foods that keep inflammation at bay. This ingredient makeup means these meals are a recipe for low energy.

Not all frozen entrees fit into this camp, so if you want the convenience of a microwavable meal, choose one that’s between 350 and 600 calories, and look for whole-food ingredients, such as brown rice, black beans and broccoli. And try to keep sodium levels under 600 mg per serving. You can also round out your meal with nutritious extras, like some avocado slices and pumpkin seeds to go with your Mexican meal or canned white beans and pine nuts with your Italian entrée.

Fast-food burgers

There are numerous reasons a typical fast-food burger can leave you feeling less vibrant. First, between the burger, the bun and the condiments, this meal is loaded with salt, saturated fat, refined grains and added sugars. Excess salt can promote fluid retention, which may be extreme if you have certain medical conditions, such as heart failure. So, for those with fluid retention problems stemming from a medical issue, salty meals can worsen fatigue. And as noted above, the other ingredients contribute to inflammation, which can also result in low energy. Finally, you’re probably not eating the burger as a standalone meal. In most cases, it’s coming with a side of fries and perhaps a sugary drink. This combo is high in fat and calories, and a heavy meal is a demanding digestive process, resulting in feeling more tired after eating.

 When a fast-food burger is a must, try to balance it out by loading up on fruits and veggies and other wholesome foods at your other meals and snacks.

White bread

Be it white sandwich bread, a doughy bagel, pizza crust or hamburger buns, refined grains can contribute to poor energy levels. Refined carbs are digested quickly, prompting a spike in blood-sugar levels similar to what happens when you eat sugar. When your blood sugar crashes, your energy is likely to feel the blow. Plus, white bread and the like have been associated with higher levels of inflammation, which can promote fatigue.

You don’t have to avoid bread (or carbs, for that matter), but for better energy and overall health, it’s best to choose whole-grain versions, such as whole-wheat bread.

Frozen yogurt

Your average scoop of fro-yo has 32 grams of added sugar, which is more than the maximum amount recommended for women each day. That equates to about a teaspoon more sugar than the average scoop of ice cream. All that sugar is a sure-fire way to sap your energy levels. Most days, women should try to top out at no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day; the upper amount for men is 36 grams per day.

If frozen yogurt is your thing, plan to have it as a treat sometimes. For everyday desserts, consider lower-sugar options, such as Yasso Bars. You could also try making your own frozen goodies using a fruit base, like bananas.

Frosted cereal

Sugary cereals are among the leading sources of added sugars in our diets. Here’s a case in point: One leading frosted cereal has 12 grams of added sugar per ¾ cup, which is three teaspoons, or half the upper amount suggested for women each day. And in reality, it’s very easy to overeat cereal, so you may be eating even more added sugar than what’s listed on the label. Plus, many cereals are made with refined grains that may worsen energy levels. So, if you’re starting the day with sugary cereal, your breakfast is working against you.

If you’re hooked on your bowl of cereal, try mixing your sugary version with an unsweetened whole-grain option, and gradually decrease the amount of sugary cereal you’re eating. 

The bottom line

If you experience an afternoon slump or just feel tired a lot of the time despite getting enough sleep, it’s possible your eating habits are contributing to low energy levels. Heavily processed and sugary foods are some of the biggest dietary culprits that can lead to fatigue. Replacing them with healthier whole foods — particularly plant foods — should help you feel more energetic.