One of the biggest reasons why people try Paleo in the first place is to get more energy. They read the testimonials from people who went from constantly-exhausted couch potatoes to vibrant, joyful CrossFit athletes, and they want that transformation for themselves. It’s perfectly understandable to expect that a healthier diet will give you more energy – which is why it’s such a betrayal when sometimes, it doesn’t. If Paleo means spending all day in a haze of exhaustion and brain fog, something’s gotta give.
So what could cause this sudden dip in energy when eating healthier foods is supposed to make you feel better? First off, start with the obvious. If you’ve just quit caffeine, if you’re not getting enough sleep regularly, or if you’ve just made another drastic life change, your diet should not be the first place to look for answers. But assuming that nothing else is responsible, it’s reasonable to start troubleshooting your food to make sure you’re not accidentally shooting yourself in the foot with your efforts to eat better.
Fatigue Culprit #1: Transition
For the first 3 weeks or so of your new Paleo lifestyle, the most likely culprit is simply the transition period. Changes, especially big changes like your entire diet, are exhausting. That’s one of the reasons why habit has such a strong power over us: it takes less energy just to do whatever we’re used to doing. Until you get into a routine, you have to use willpower, and that’s draining, both mentally and physically. Your brain is working a lot harder than it usually has to, so it’s no surprise that you’re tired.
On top of that, Paleo tends to be lower in carbs, with most of your calories coming from fat. If you’re switching from a high-carb diet, there’s usually a week or two of adjustment (commonly known as the “low-carb flu”).
The solution: be patient, and give yourself a break. When you’re in the middle of this, it’s easy to worry that it’s going to go on forever, but remember: this is a transition period. It will pass. Your body is working very hard to get used to your new diet: be kind to it. Once you make new habits, you won’t be putting such a heavy toll on your mental resources all the time, and once you get used to running on fat, you’ll wonder why you ever thought a bowl of Rice Krispies was a decent breakfast. You just have to give it time.
Fatigue Culprit #2: Not Enough Carbs
But what if you’ve been through the transition period and you’re still tired? It’s possible that you’re just not eating enough carbs.
Not enough carbs? Wasn’t the first section about switching away from carbs? Carbs definitely shouldn’t be your staple source of calories, but that doesn’t mean you need to eliminate them completely from your diet. Even with fat providing most of your energy, carbohydrates are still very important, especially for women, children, and athletes. They’re nutrients just like every other nutrient: you don’t want too much, but you don’t want too little, either.
Figuring out where that “sweet spot” is can be a little tricky. Most of us are familiar with the problems of eating too many carbs. The classic “sugar rush” is an extreme example of “energy overdose” from carbohydrates. Eaten to excess, this energy gets stored as fat, not to mention sending you on a crazy sugar high/sugar crash rollercoaster all day long. Heaps of refined carbohydrates are nobody’s friend.
But entirely eliminating carbs swings the pendulum too far the other way. It’s a problem to get more carbohydrate energy than you need, but it’s also a problem to not get enough. Athletes, for example, often really struggle with a low-carb diet because carbs are your muscles’ favorite fuel. When they’re not being fueled adequately, those muscles just don’t work as well. For high-intensity work like sprinting or Crossfit, some safe starches in your diet will help you feel and perform better, and recover faster after a workout.
Some other people also just feel better when they eat a little more starch. Their energy goes up; they stop having cold hands and feet all the time; they get to sleep better and wake up more refreshed. Women in particular (especially pregnant women) tend to do better with more carbs in their diet. There are exceptions, of course, but a ketogenic diet is not generally ideal for fertility and pregnancy – or even for overall good health.
The solution: eat more carbs. Good Paleo carb sources include potatoes, sweet potatoes, chestnuts, bananas (the only fruit with more starch than sugar), and plantains. Other root vegetables (like carrots and winter squash) have some but not a lot; they’re fine to eat, but you’d have to eat a big pile to get enough.
Fatigue Culprit #3: Not Enough Calories (even if you don’t feel hungry!)
Two boiled eggs and a side of vegetables is not enough for breakfast. Half a chicken breast with some salad greens is not enough for lunch. One cup of soup and some roasted squash doesn’t even deserve to be called dinner: that’s a snack. Even if you’re trying to lose weight with Paleo, you need to eat enough food to supply your body’s essential needs. Food is energy; if you aren’t getting enough of it, you will feel exhausted and run-down all the time, because exhaustion is a symptom of starvation.
This could be true for you even if you think you “eat a lot of food.” A big pile of vegetables is very healthy, but it simply doesn’t have a lot of calories. If you’re using that broccoli to replace a bunch of bread, you’d better also be increasing your servings of meat and fat. The 3-ounce “portion” of meat (the size of a deck of cards) is set by diet authorities who assume that you will be accompanying it with a huge pile of rice, wheat, or corn. If you’re replacing all those things with non-starchy vegetables, you need to eat more of the meat!
How much more? More than you probably think. Most of us – men and women – are conditioned to distrust our bodies and our hunger. Whether we intend to or not, we tend to ignore our hunger signals and instead take cues from our environment about how much we “should” be eating – but those portions are often way too small. According to the World Health Organization, a starvation diet is defined as less than 1800 calories a day for women or 2100 for men (now compare that to the 1400-calorie diets regularly recommended for weight loss). If you plug your data into the calorie calculator here, you might be surprised at how much you actually need.
At this point, you might be thinking something like “but this can’t be me! I don’t count or restrict calories! I don’t feel hungry at all, just exhausted.” But it’s not that simple. For some complicated hormonal reasons (see this article for all the science), the hunger of long-term energy restriction doesn’t always produce any empty feeling in your stomach. That goes double for people with a history of calorie-restricted or “portion-controlled” dieting. If your body has been living through a “famine” for a while now, you might be starving without realizing it.
The upshot: you need more food than you think you do. When you switch to Paleo, you’ll need to change your mental picture of how much meat and fat should be on your plate, or risk a serious energy deficiency. If your daily energy expenditure is 2300 calories but you’re only eating 1400, it’s absolutely no surprise that you’re feeling tired.
The solution: eat more. Just to give you an idea, this is what 2000 calories (about enough for a sedentary man or an active woman) of Paleo food looks like:
- Breakfast: 4-egg omelet (with whatever non-starchy vegetables you like), cooked in 1 tbsp. coconut oil; 2 slices of pan-fried bacon.
- Lunch: 1 whole avocado; salad with 6 ounces of salmon (about half a can) and whatever non-starchy vegetables you like plus 1 tbsp. olive oil in the dressing.
- Dinner: 1 serving of barbecued sirloin with Dijon; 1 large sweet potato with 1 tbsp. butter; 1 cup spinach sautéed in 1 tbsp. coconut oil.
- Dessert: 1 cup strawberries drizzled with 2 tbsp. coconut milk.
If one of these meals looks a lot like your total daily food intake, it’s time to start eating some more. You may have to count calories at first to make sure you’re getting enough food, but as your body recovers, it will start to give you accurate hunger and fullness signals. This is true even if you want to lose weight: you don’t need to create a massive calorie deficit for weight loss. It’s actually better to take it slow and steady, and feel amazing and energetic during the process.
Fatigue Culprit #4: Not Enough Fat
If carbs are your best friend when it comes to energy, fat is your second-best. The number one reason why people fall prey to the “not enough calories” problem above is that they’re still afraid of fat. So they take out a lot of energy-dense carbohydrate foods, but they refuse to replace those carbohydrates with healthy fats, and they end up exhausted and hungry all the time. But there’s absolutely no reason to fear fat. There is no such thing as “low-fat Paleo.” “Low-fat” should not even be a word in your Paleo vocabulary.
The solution: eat more fat. Butter, animal fats, and fatty cuts of meat are all good for you; enjoy them!
One fat that’s particularly good for energy is coconut oil. Coconut oil is high in a special type of saturated fat called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs are digested and absorbed very fast, so they’re like an instant energy boost. So the next time you’re feeling down in the afternoon and craving an energy hit, try a spoonful of coconut oil instead of a caffeine boost or a sugary snack: it’s the same quick energy, but without the crash afterwards. For even more MCT goodness, you can also buy specially-formulated MCT oil (although this is more expensive).
Fatigue Culprit #5: Not Enough Salt
“Not enough salt” (like “not enough fat” and “not enough calories”) is one of those problems only Paleo dieters seem to have. Common knowledge is that salt is dangerous and unhealthy, but in reality that’s just not so. In fact, a salt deficiency can be unhealthy, and it’s easy to get too little if you stop eating high-salt processed foods and start cooking everything at home without salt.
So how does inadequate salt cause fatigue? For one thing, restricting your salt intake can leave you deficient in a mineral called iodine. Iodine isn’t found naturally in salt, but most table salt in the United States is fortified with it, and salt is a significant source of iodine in the American diet. So when you stop eating salt, you’re also drastically cutting back on your iodine intake.
This is dangerous, because you need iodine to keep your thyroid healthy, and the thyroid is like the central control mechanism for every hormone in your body. Constant, wearing fatigue (among other side effects like weight gain and menstrual abnormalities) is a classic sign of thyroid problems. If you suddenly feel tired on Paleo when you never did before, you might want to add some salt back into your diet or look up another source of iodine like seaweed.
There’s also a second reason why a low-salt diet can make you feel tired. Salt is an electrolyte – one of the important minerals that most of us recognize as “things we’re supposed to eat after exercising.” Your body needs a certain balance of salt and water to function properly. If you drink a lot of water and don’t eat enough salt (especially if you’re also losing salt through sweat when you work out), you’re at risk for a medical condition called hyponatremia, which causes muscle cramps, confusion, and (you guessed it!) fatigue. When sports medicine experts advise you to drink electrolytes after a workout, this is what they’re trying to prevent.
Hyponatremia is most commonly a problem for elite athletes, but even the conservative, conventional-wisdom Mayo Clinic admits that “A low-sodium, high-water diet can sometimes disturb the proper balance between sodium and fluids in your blood.”
The solution: eat more salt. Sea salt is fine, but if you want to fix an iodine deficiency, either choose an iodized salt or get another source of iodine as well. Eat as much salt as you crave; when you’re not filling up your plate with sodium-packed processed foods, you can rely on your taste buds as the ultimate judge of how much your body needs.
Fatigue Culprit #6: Nutrient Deficiencies
Iodine is covered above, but a wide range of other nutrient deficiencies can also be expressed as chronic low energy. In fact, almost any kind of nutrient deficiency can cause fatigue, but there are a few that are especially important with respect to Paleo:
- Iron and/or Vitamin B12: this one is rare among Paleo dieters because meat is an excellent source of both iron and Vitamin B12. But here’s the catch: iron is absorbed in the gut. If you have underlying gut problems (like Celiac Disease), you might not be absorbing all the iron in your diet, so anemia is still a possibility no matter how much iron you eat. If you suspect you might have some gut issues, it might be worthwhile to get a blood test for iron and see whether anemia might be an issue.
- Vitamin D: It’s possible to be deficient in Vitamin D even on Paleo, because most of your body’s supply comes from the sun, not from food. Most milk is fortified with Vitamin D, so if you stop drinking milk and don’t make a special effort to get enough other Vitamin D-rich foods, you might start seeing deficiency symptoms on Paleo. Good food sources include salmon, sardines, and eggs, or get out in the sun!
- Choline: Choline isn’t as famous as some other minerals, but it’s one of your brain’s favorite nutrients. Choline is necessary for building the membranes of cells in your brain, so deficiency can cause fatigue (as well as all kinds of other brain problems). If you’re trying to do a “low-fat” version of Paleo, you might be deficient in choline, because the best sources are delicious, fat-rich animal foods like egg yolks.
- Selenium: Like iodine, selenium is important for thyroid health. So a deficiency of selenium can cause fatigue and other symptoms of thyroid dysfunction. You might be deficient if you don’t eat fish and seafood regularly, as most food sources come from the ocean (the big exception is Brazil nuts).
Paleo “Energy Foods.”
Having a hard time trying to mentally juggle all 6 of these “culprits”? To help you integrate all this into your regular diet, here are eight delicious and nutritious energy-boosting Paleo foods:
- Liver: Liver is famous for its “energizing” effect – you can almost feel the astonishing amount of nutrition rushing straight into your body as you eat it. Possibly this is the placebo effect (eating liver doesn’t happen by accident; if it’s on your plate, you know it’s good for you), but it might also have to do with the truly amazing amounts of fatigue-fighting vitamins it contains. One ounce of raw liver already has 277% of your RDA of B12, and very few people eat just one ounce at a time. Liver is also high in selenium and choline, not to mention pretty much everything else: if you have any kind of nutrient deficiency at all, liver is a good bet for solving it.
- Eggs: Egg yolks are palm-sized nutritional gems. They’re rich in choline and selenium (two of the potential nutrient deficiencies that might cause fatigue), and they’re full of healthy fat. Don’t eat just the whites; the yolks are where all the nutrients are!
- Potatoes or sweet potatoes: both are delicious sources of starchy carbs, and easy to prepare: just throw them in the microwave for 5 minutes, and top with some butter and cinnamon.
- Chestnuts: another tasty source of starch, perfect if you’re getting a little bored with potatoes.
- Avocado: avocados are a healthy and delicious way to fix a deficiency of fat and calories. They give you all the energy of a healthy fat source, but with all the vitamins and minerals of a vegetable. If you’re struggling to find enough “stomach space” for all the calories you know you should be eating, start here!
- Salmon: salmon will hit 3 of the 4 important nutrients listed above (iron/B vitamins, Vitamin D, and selenium); it’s also full of many other vitamins and minerals, healthy fats, and high-quality protein.
- Grass-fed butter: there’s a reason why the famous “Bulletproof coffee” insists on grass-fed butter and not just any old stick you can pick up at the grocery store. Butter has the same medium-chain triglycerides as coconut oil, and the grass-fed variety is also a source of iodine and selenium.
- Pemmican: pemmican was the original “energy bar” for Native American groups, made from a mixture of tallow and dehydrated meat (sometimes with berries added). Like liver, it’s another one of those foods that makes you feel almost superhuman when you eat it. Make your own, or buy it online.
These are just suggestions; you don’t have to eat any of them if you don’t want to. But these are the kinds of foods that will help you treat your fatigue symptoms: nutrient-rich, energy-dense whole foods. Unsurprisingly, they’re also just generally healthy: fatigue is really a sign of an overall health problem, so anything that produces an overall health improvement will help fight it.
Don’t settle for a Paleo diet that leaves you constantly exhausted. For one thing, you’re not likely to stick to it – if your choices are feeling energetic while eating pizza or feeling lousy while eating a salad, at some point you’re going to crack and go for the pizza. To really make Paleo stick, you need to find a way to keep your energy levels up while you’re at it.
To summarize very briefly, the main reasons why you might feel tired on Paleo are:
- Transition (for the first 2-3 weeks)
- Not enough carbs
- Not enough calories
- Not enough fat
- Not enough salt
- Nutrient deficiencies
Note that this is all different from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), a disorder that makes you constantly exhausted all the time, whether you’re eating Paleo or not. CFS is a very complicated disease, and it’s very real, but it’s not caused by anything as simple as a change in diet. This article is about a totally different problem: the sudden, confusing drop in energy that otherwise healthy and energetic people notice when they switch to Paleo.
In that situation, the culprit is most likely to be one of the problems above. But just because you fell into one of these traps the first time around doesn’t mean you can’t change that now. Experiment with one – or more – of the solutions, and see how you feel; you might be surprised at how simple the answer actually is!