Nutrition Scientist Eleana Papadopoulou explains how to eat your way to more energy
Eleana Papadopoulou is a Nutrition Scientist for the British Nutrition Foundation. These are Eleana’s tips about how to tackle tiredness today…
How can diet help combat tiredness?
Eleana says: As well as having arthritis, a person can feel tired for a number of reasons. So, firstly I would advise you visit your GP to ensure you don’t suffer from any of the other health conditions that can cause tiredness; iron deficiency anaemia, an under-active thyroid, coeliac disease and diabetes are examples.
If a medical condition has been ruled out by your GP, you can help tackle tiredness with a healthy, varied diet that contains foods from the five groups of the eatwell plate, in the right proportions.
The five food groups on the eatwell plate are:
- Bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods
- Fruit and vegetables
- Milk and dairy products
- Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
- Foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar.
It is also important to eat at regular intervals so that the body learns to manage any feelings of hunger and to sustain energy levels. Many people find having small meals and snacks helpful, and ensuring they meet their calorie requirements. For further info on a healthy, varied diet see our website.
Which habits or foods are good for boosting or conserving energy levels?
Eleana says: I would recommend to anyone, not just arthritis sufferers to:
- Eat regular meals, including breakfast. If you feel hungry between meals, choose healthy snacks, such as fruit and nuts. Regular meals help ensure you maintain good energy levels throughout the day, which can contribute to you feeling less tired.
- Include starchy carbohydrates of low glycaemic index (GI), such as porridge oats, high-fibre cereals and brown pasta, which release energy from food slowly. This will help to keep you going through the day.
- Include foods rich in B-vitamins, such as fortified breakfast cereals, rice, eggs, meat, fish, milk and eggs. B-vitamins help release energy from food so you will get a greater energy boost from the foods that you eat.
- Choose foods rich in iron and folic acid, such as lean red meat, eggs, green leafy vegetables (such as spinach and broccoli), pulses (such as beans, peas and lentils) and fortified breakfast cereals. Folic acid works synergistically with vitamin B12 to form new red blood cells to prevent anaemia, which makes you feel tired. Vitamin C helps iron to be absorbed more easily by the body, so include foods that are high in vitamin C, such as oranges, strawberries and red or yellow peppers in your diet.
- Certain lifestyle changes can also help increase energy levels. It is important to get enough sleep, cut down on alcohol and get enough physical activity. It is recommended to exercise for at least 30 minutes each day, five days a week.
What about if you have RA?
Eleana says: If a person were suffering from rheumatoid arthritis I would take into consideration the following:
- Acute flare-ups may interfere with appetite. In such situations it is important to listen to your body and try to eat small, frequent meals and ensure you drink plenty of fluids. You could also try a nutritional supplement that will provide you with extra calories and nutrients within a small volume. It is vital that you ask your rheumatologist or dietitian before taking any type of supplements as they can interact with certain medications.
- Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids also appear to suppress inflammation and may help reduce joint pain and stiffness. Try to eat at least two portions of oil-rich fish, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and fresh tuna. One portion is 140g or a small fillet of oily fish. It is important to bear in mind that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not eat more than two portions of oily fish per week, as oily fish can contain low levels of pollutants, such as mercury, which may build up in the body and harm the baby.*
- Certain medications may increase the need for some nutrients, or decrease their absorption (examples are iron, zinc, calcium and folate)*. It’s best to ask your rheumatologist and / or pharmacist or dietitian about this.
- Inflammation can cause antioxidant vitamin deficiency (such as vitamin C and E and the mineral selenium), so it is extra important to ensure your diet contains plenty of fruit and vegetables and wholegrain cereals. By the way, there is no evidence to suggest that routinely taking vitamin supplements is of any benefit to rheumatoid arthritis patients. It’s best to get these vitamins from a healthy diet*.
- Mobility difficulties may contribute to weight gain and increase the risk of heart disease. So, prevention and management of weight gain and obesity is necessary. The more weight you carry, the more difficult it is to move about and the more tired you will feel. Even a modest weight loss can be beneficial. Ask for support with weight loss and an exercise plan if you feel you need it.
If tiredness is linked to depression, can diet help?
Eleana says: Yes, it is possible. Having regular meals throughout the day, including foods from the five main food groups of the eatwell plate, will ensure the brain and cells of the body have a regular supply of energy.
It is also recommended to have an adequate intake of unsaturated fat, including at least two portions of oily fish per week (remember that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not have more than two portions of oily fish per week), and an adequate intake of protein-rich foods, such as turkey, fish, eggs and milk. These can be beneficial as they contain the amino acid tryptophan, which could improve mood*.
Also, ensure good hydration (8-10 glasses per day) as dehydration has been shown to affect mood. Regular exercise is also important, as when exercising, your body releases chemicals, called endorphins, which can boost your mood and make you feel happier and more positive about life.
*Thomas B and Bishop J., Manual of dietetic practice, 4th Edition 2007.
**Benton D. (2011) Dehydration Influences Mood and Cognition: A plausible hypothesis. Nutrients 3:555-573
Find out more about healthy eating
British Nutrition Foundation
If you feel tired all of the time…
Tell your GP or your rheumatologist or nurse. You do not have to cope with your tiredness alone. There may be simple changes to your lifestyle or treatment plan that could help.