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Fight Fatigue with Food

by Danielle Karsies, MS, RD, CSO

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Feeling drained? You’re not alone. Almost all cancer survivors will experience fatigue at some point during their treatment or recovery. While eating may not feel worth the effort, especially when you don’t have much of an appetite, it is. Food is the fuel on which your body runs. Just like you can’t expect your car to run with­out gas, your body cannot run without food. To fight fatigue, you need to con­sume enough calories and protein from high-octane foods to rev your engine.

Keep It Steady
Skipping meals or going long stretches without eating can lead to drops in blood sugar that contrib­ute to fatigue and poor concentration. Make breakfast a regular part of your day, and try to eat small meals or snacks every three to four hours throughout the day. Focus on complex carbohydrates, such as whole wheat breads and pastas; fruits; vegetables; beans; and whole grains, such as oats, quinoa, and bul­gur. These foods are rich in fiber and provide a steady release of energy.

Avoid quick fixes like simple sugars and caffeine. They can provide a tem­porary energy boost, but the effects are short lived and often will leave you feeling more drained once their effects wear off.

Author of Article photo

Danielle Karsies

Drink Up
Getting enough to drink is important for fighting fatigue. When you don’t drink enough fluids, your blood volume decreases, making your heart pump harder. This makes even small tasks like brushing your teeth more of an effort. Aim to drink at least 64 to 80 fluid ounces of liquid per day. You can keep a visual record of your fluid intake by filling a 2-liter (64-ounce) container with tap water. Each time you drink any type of fluid or eat liquid-containing food (soup broth, ice cream, gelatin), pour out that amount of liquid from the 2-liter container so you have a running tally of your fluid intake for the day. To avoid frequent nighttime bathroom trips hindering your sleep, avoid fluid consumption within one to two hours before bedtime.

P Is for Power (and Protein)
Pro­tein is an important building block for muscle. Muscle strength makes daily activities such as walking and going up and down stairs more manageable. Additionally, protein helps release the energy from carbohydrates at a slower rate, providing energy for a longer pe­riod. To meet your protein needs, make sure you have at least one to two serv­ings of protein-rich foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts, or legumes, with each meal and snack.

Fitting in Fat
It’s important to get adequate calories to maintain your weight, which indicates you are getting enough fuel to fight fatigue. If you are losing weight, include healthy fats, such as avocado, olive oil, fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna), nuts, and seeds, in your diet. These foods are packed with healthy calories. If you’re not losing weight, these fats are still good options. But you should avoid overeating, as extra weight can worsen fatigue.

Lifestyle Matters
You may think that you should exercise less when you’re experiencing fatigue, but the opposite is actually true. Try to avoid sitting for longer than two hours at a time. Instead schedule some type of movement every two hours, such as taking a short walk around your house, standing while you talk on the phone, or get­ting up to do some simple stretches. This will help to get your blood flowing for a natural pick-me-up. Once you’ve in­creased your daily movement, work on fitting in regular physical activity. You should talk with your doctor before beginning any exercise routine. While the recommendation is 30 minutes of physical activity per day, remember that any activity is better than no activity. So do what you can now, and increase the duration and intensity as you gain endurance and strength.

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Danielle Karsies is lead dietitian of Nutri­tion Services at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center in Ann Arbor, MI.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2013.