September 30, 2021

How to Fight Fatigue with Food

Show Notes

On this episode, Chuck Gaidica is joined by Susan Okonkowski, registered dietitian for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Together, they discuss how to combat fatigue by properly fueling your body with food.

In this episode of A Healthier Michigan Podcast, we explore:

  • What could be causing your fatigue and when to see a doctor.
  • How to properly fuel your body to avoid the midday slump.
  • Nutrients that are important to minimize fatigue.
  • Examples of meals and snacks to incorporate throughout the day.

Transcript

Chuck Gaidica:
This is A Healthier Michigan Podcast, Episode 90. Coming up, we discuss how we can use food to fight fatigue.

Chuck Gaidica:
Welcome to A Healthier Michigan Podcast. This podcast is dedicated to navigating how we can improve our health and well-being through small, healthy habits we can start implementing right now. I mean, today. I’m your host, Chuck Gaidica. Every other week, we sit down with a certified expert to discuss topics that cover nutrition and fitness a whole lot more. And on this episode, we’re diving deep into how we can start eating, maybe foods that we should even stop eating to help us fight fatigue and fuel us right through the day. Because, whether you’re at work or home, you may need some power. With us today is a registered dietician for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Susan Okonkowski. It’s good to have you back.

Susan Okonkowski:
Thanks so much, Chuck. It’s really great to be back and talking with you.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, you’ve got so much experience as a healthcare manager for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. I know you’ve taught, you teach, you also judge for healthcare awards, so you’ve got a really deep bench of knowledge and this idea that somehow, regardless of where we’re working physically, that you’re in the middle of a task or maybe it’s the middle of your day, and suddenly you kind of get that feeling of womp, womp, womp. It’s like somebody is letting air out of your tires and you’re struggling to kind of push through the day. And so, for a lot of us, it maybe you grab the candy bar, you go for another coffee, although you’ve had a couple in the morning. It’s sugar, it’s caffeine, pick one, an energy drink, and you think, “Well, that’s going to get me going.” And it does maybe temporarily, right? Then, what?

Susan Okonkowski:
Right. And that’s the problem with choosing those kinds of pick-me ups. And like you said, it’s the energy drinks, the extra coffee in the afternoon at three o’clock or whenever it is that you feel that slump, or the quick burst of sugar that you think is going to help catapult you, which it will for about 15, maybe 30 minutes, but then your blood sugar tends to do this crash. And you almost feel even more fatigued longterm for the rest of the night than if you were to just have grabbed something like a fresh piece of fruit. I always say bananas, apricots, berries, things like that, combined with a few nuts in the afternoon is a really good way to help get through that slump of the day.

Chuck Gaidica:
What is it that’s causing the fatigue? Is it literally that whatever we had for breakfast, or for some people who are into fasting, or they’ve skipped it because life got so busy? Are we setting the table, forgive the pun, early in the day to set us up for this downfall of energy in the middle of the day?

Susan Okonkowski:
That could absolutely be part of it. But, I think too, in addition, and this is just another important thing to mention for all the listeners out there, in addition to, we’ll get back to the nutrition aspect, but there’s also a lot of other health conditions that may be causing you to feel this way. Speaking with your primary care physician, potentially getting measured for things like anemia or hypothyroidism. Maybe someone is experiencing sleep apnea and their quality of sleep is not great. And or even depression, with mental health being such a concern these days. Those are other things in addition to what else could be happening that can cause that midday slump that you think, “Oh, it’s just today,” or, “I’m just feeling this way because I’ve had a lot going on with my kids.” But, in all reality, those can be underlying conditions.

Susan Okonkowski:
In addition to that, getting back to talking about what you eat throughout the day is so vitally important for almost setting yourself up so you don’t hit that afternoon slump. Important things like eating breakfast, even if there’s someone out there who does intermittent fasting. Whatever time of day you do get up and you start to consume those foods, having the healthy balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and then continuing to fuel your body every two to three hours throughout the day to maintain that good blood sugar control.

Susan Okonkowski:
Because, whether diabetic or not, your blood sugar is going to go up and down throughout the day, and that’s for everybody. So when you’re not fueling your system with those healthy foods, your blood sugar is still going to drop. And that’s oftentimes when people start to get fatigued. Hydration is another really important factor to ensuring that you don’t feel fatigued. And, all too often, we don’t think about, “Oh, just drink some extra water.” “That’s not really going to help my fatigue.” But, in all reality, it is actually a very important part of maintaining your energy level, maintaining your fatigue, is the hydration too, in addition to foods.

Chuck Gaidica:
And this idea that, we all have excuses for everything in our life at times. And I’ve heard, I remember my senior parents used to say to me, “Well, I forgot to drink water today.” And you think that’s a senior only thing, it’s an elder thing, but I have also talked to people and I find myself, “Well, I haven’t really had much water.” Maybe I had coffee. I thought that was water. I had a pop. I think that’s water, there is water, but it’s not the same as water. You’re right. We need to keep track of how we’re consuming that beverage in particular.

Susan Okonkowski:
Exactly. Because, while the coffee is included in your overall fluid intake for the day, it’s actually dehydrating you a little bit. So, I always say this rule, “One cup of coffee, one cup of water,” just to make sure that you balance out your hydration levels. And it’s a very common thing for many people in the morning to grab that coffee, and then you really don’t think about it until you’re like, “I’m kind of thirsty at lunchtime,” and you realize, “Well, I’ve had two cups of coffee and barely any water to drink.” Hydration actually another, like I said, important factor to maintaining that energy level throughout the day.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, you talked about this idea of kind of getting going, even if you are into intermittent fasting and how many of us, I think I’ve actually seen the slogan on some of the gas stations/convenience stores, the grab and go. We live in a culture where we’re on our way. We’re getting gas, we’re on our way to work, and you’re going to grab and go the honey bun and a big coffee, and that’s breakfast. But, if you reverse engineer it and you think about it, you may be setting yourself up for that womp, womp, womp of energy later in the day just simply by what you chose earlier in the day.

Susan Okonkowski:
Exactly. It’s those processed foods that are high in added sugars or the energy drinks that are very commonly picked as easy types of items, or the muffin. But, in all essence, it is giving you that quick boost. And yes, it’s a food, but it doesn’t contain those complex carbohydrates like whole grains, and or enough protein, that’s lean protein that’s going to help you really get through the day with a stable energy. And like your said, Chuck, even some people are skipping a meal because, well, they’re too busy. They’re getting their kids to school and then they need to get to work. And as the minute you walk in the door, it’s like, “Well, I have to see patients.” Whatever it is that you do during the day and you kind of forget that, “Well, geez, I missed breakfast and now I’m really feeling tired and it’s 11 o’clock. I’ll just grab another cup of coffee.” When, in all reality, we really need to maybe grab a banana with a little dollop of almond butter. They make little packets too of almond butter, peanut butter, whatever nut butter is your favorite.

Susan Okonkowski:
Those kinds of snacks are easy to grab and go and will help you in the long run to keep that energy level up throughout the day. And in addition to that, things like bananas, and I mentioned earlier some of the other fruits, are also providing your body with magnesium and potassium. And those are a couple of nutrients that we forget about, how important they are for energy levels. When your body is lacking in things like magnesium, potassium, in addition of iron and a couple of others, you can experience that fatigue even if you’re eating fairly healthy throughout the day. It’s a nutrient loss that you’re experiencing.

Chuck Gaidica:
And that becomes critically important. You mentioned underlying conditions. I know someone right now that’s going through testing, and now they’ve raised, the doctors have raised the issue of maybe a possible ulcer, which was never even on the radar of this person, but their blood work kept coming back with some level of anemia. And even the doctors were saying, “We don’t get it. You’re eating right.” And so, the notion that you may even discover, not that you know you have an issue, you may discover an underlying issue that’s leading to fatigue. And I think that was such great advice, that sort of we put up our antennas that “Well, is something else going on?” If you are doing everything you’re saying we should do, maybe there’s an underlying reason there to see your primary care doc. Huh?

Susan Okonkowski:
Exactly. And it is important if you are eating the appropriate amount of iron and magnesium and your B vitamins and you’re like, “Oh, I eat really healthy. I eat clean, but I’m just not feeling well. It’s hard to get out of bed in the morning. And I’m sleeping really well too.” That’s another thing. Quality of sleep is very critical and it does drive that need to “I really should reach out to my primary care physician,” and then they can run the appropriate test to determine, like you said, if there’s anything underlying beyond diet and exercise and other things that could help someone to gain their energy levels back.

Chuck Gaidica:
If we look at the working person on a typical shift, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a day or night shift really, but if we take dinner out for just a moment because we’ll assume that maybe you’re doing that offsite, what would be your suggestion for the best way to craft your morning meal, your snack, your lunch, and maybe even another snack in the afternoon? Give us some broader suggestions about what we could do to create maybe a more typical day to help us get through without the crashes that can occur.

Susan Okonkowski:
The biggest thing is ensuring in the morning that you have some carbohydrates mixed with a little bit of protein, and fat, the good ones. And I know you and I have talked about this on prior episodes, oatmeal. Oatmeal is one of those things that you can mix a little bit of almond butter, peanut butter in there. You can add some fruit. That is going to help give you energy to keep moving throughout the day. Another example I think about a lot of individuals like a whole grain toast with maybe a slice of avocado on it, maybe a little bit of cheese on there. That’s also going to give you some appropriate protein, carbs, and fats that, again, that blood sugar maintenance.

Susan Okonkowski:
Then, you think about, coming up on snack time, “I had breakfast, now I’m going to have maybe a piece of fruit for my snack.” That can be anything from a banana to an apricot. And don’t worry about those carbs. Because, some people like, “Oh, that’s a lot of carbohydrates in a banana.” But, the banana is also going to help give you energy. And if you’re eating it early in the morning too, and I say early like you’re having it before lunch, you’re going to be fairly active throughout the rest of the day that your body is going to utilize those carbohydrates. It’s not like they’re going to sit in your body and then turn to fat. Those are some good options for snacks. And then, when lunchtime rolls around, don’t eat too heavy either. That’s the other thing. Some individuals will sit down and have a really, really carbohydrate-heavy lunch that doesn’t have a lot of protein or fat in it. That also can potentially determine that slump later in the day.

Susan Okonkowski:
Some better options to think about for lunch would be something like a salad that has maybe a little bit of quinoa on it. Maybe some chicken. If you’re a vegetarian out there, beans are another really good option. And mixed with a sprinkling of any kind of your favorite nuts and a light dressing. You can even throw some wild-caught salmon on there. It’s another good option. All of those kinds of foods are very balanced in the sense that, again, it’s carbs, protein, and fat that are healthy, that are going to maintain that blood sugar control to get you to the afternoon, when now here you are and it’s like, “Well, I’m getting hungry again.” Maybe you have a little pack of hummus that you’ve thrown into your bag to go somewhere, and you dip that with some crackers. Again, that’s going to get you all the way through dinner. Those were some really good options to think about. And plus, it’s also giving you that iron, magnesium, and B vitamins that your body needs to help stabilize your energy.

Chuck Gaidica:
I’ve made two discoveries in recent years and it’s really funny because I’ve used these items in other meals. I don’t mind salmon. I love salmon, but I always thought of salmon and tuna like, “I’ve got to take a can,” or “I’ve got to make this in advance.” And then I discovered, I’m slow on the uptake here, Susan, that you can buy this stuff in little pouches. So now, I’ve got a case of these salmon pouches coming. They’re 70 calories. I just open it up, zip, and I put it on a salad and some blueberries and the light dressing and bada bing, bada boom. And it’s just the best, fast way whether I’m home or on the go of creating a lunch. I always thought, “Wow, this is heavy lifting. I’ve got to cook the salmon. Then, I’ve got to open the whole can of tuna. What do I do with the rest? And what if I don’t want to eat it again tomorrow?” And this has solved that issue for me. It’s been a great find.

Susan Okonkowski:
That’s awesome to hear, Chuck. Yeah, you’re getting omega-3s from the fish. You’re getting the vitamins from the fish, whether you’re having spinach, kale, as your base. Again, those are some other kind of, as I like to call them powerhouse foods. There’s a lot of nutrients packed in there that are going to help keep you stabilized throughout the day. Because, I’m sure, like many of us, maybe we have sat down for lunch one time here or another and had a heavier pasta dish or maybe even a piece of pizza or something else, and then, all of a sudden, you do start to feel kind of tired later on. Even though you’re full, you’re also a little bit tired, versus you have that salad with your salmon on it and you’re still going at three o’clock and you really don’t feel that slump or fatigue as much.

Chuck Gaidica:
I’ve also come to enjoy these Triple Zero yogurts. They’re 90 or a hundred calories, and a little sprinkle of berries or even a little added oatmeal, and it’s turned into a great snack. I used to think that was breakfast, and then I thought, “Well, wait a minute. There’s not that much to it. Maybe I can use it as a boost with protein.” There are these little things that I think each of us can discover. And once you find it, because not everybody can eat dairy or like yogurt, not everybody likes salmon, but when you discover those individual hacks, they become really easy ways for you to go about your day and not worry. It has been for me anyway.

Susan Okonkowski:
Exactly. And that’s a nice thing too, like you mentioned, there’re all kinds of other alternatives out there. I know one of my kids’ favorite snack in the afternoon when they come home from school is they like yogurt and raspberries or blueberries mixed in. And with the lactose intolerance, it’s like, “Well, we’ve just found a different alternative yogurt that they can eat and they still really enjoy it.” And it’s a good snack for them to keep going throughout the rest of the day. There’re all kinds of things. Like you said, if you’re not a fish lover, there’s chicken or lean meat. Or if you’re a vegetarian, there’re all kinds of beans and lentils and quinoa and other things that you can sprinkle on that salad that, again, are going to be packed with nutrients and give you the energy you need.

Chuck Gaidica:
If we’re in a setting now, and increasingly we are in settings where we’re back to, old school machines are all we’ve got somewhere in the commissary area, although a lot of companies are putting out food, although in this time that’s still not the case… What would you say that if we didn’t make a plan and we’ve got to get something on the go that’s staring us in the face from some little machine, what would be the go-tos that you would look for that are not so crazy that they’re not even in the machine? You know what I mean? But, that would be stuff that you would pick, you’d say, “Well, that’s the one I’m going to go for?” What would that be for a snack? Not so much a meal.

Susan Okonkowski:
Yeah. A snack, they’d make, and I’ve seen me as all over the place, they have oftentimes crackers and cheese, or they have peanut butter crackers, which can be common. Watch for the trans fats. Some of those packaged foods can have some processing with them, but there’s a lot of other really good options out there like that, where you’re mixing a little bit of carb, a little bit of protein, a little bit of fat. And I’ve even noticed and I’ve seen a lot of vending machine companies starting to add more fresh foods into the cycle. People can grab a piece of fresh fruit as it’s going around, and instead of just the chips, the cookies, the other candy, traditional type items that are in the vending machines and the grab-and-gos.

Chuck Gaidica:
The other thing that I’ve discovered in my life, and again, I’m not so special, I’m just sharing, but I forget, somebody did a study and they said you can almost learn to like anything after 30 days. You can almost learn to like taking guitar lessons, if you don’t know what you’re doing like me. After 30 days, you get kind of good at something, where there’s some hope. And I have found my taste buds can adapt. Like, if I saw an apple just a few years ago, going around in some machine in a carousel, I would not pick an apple. I would think, “Oh, I don’t know, it’s an apple. I’ll get one of those at home or something.” And now my palette has changed, but it took me a minute for me to get those things, hummus and crackers, if that’s an option I see or something, and you try it. And if you try it a couple times, chances are good. You can retrain your brain and your palette to really accommodate these healthier choices, I have found.

Susan Okonkowski:
You absolutely can. Even as an adult, like you’ve said, sometimes, we get so set in our ways and it’s like, “Well, I don’t like a certain food because I’ve never enjoyed it,” or “I don’t care for it,” but, on average, it takes at least three to six times to try something, whether it’s a toddler trying something for the very first time in their life or an adult going back and saying, “I don’t like fish.” And I hear this commonly too from adults where it’s like, “Oh, seafood is just, I would never eat salmon. I don’t like salmon.” But, like you said, trying it a few times in different ways and with different seasonings too… And that’s the other nice part about trying new things, there’re different ways to eat it. Like quinoa, salmon, the list goes on. There’re different ways to season it where you’re not adding a ton of salt and it really can kind of hit what you like for your own palette and continuing to try and change things. And eventually, it does become a food that you add into your overall dietary intake.

Chuck Gaidica:
I know we’ve been kind of stopping leading up to dinnertime and I don’t know that you want to jump into dinner planning, but I think there’s another piece of this that even comes in after dinner, which can lead to impacting your sleep if you’re snacking too late and if you’re drinking coffee or grabbing yet another… God, if I have a Tim Hortons before nine o’clock at night, it’s like rocket fuel. I’m sorry. I love it. It’s just that it’s going to keep me up until two. I know it. It’s just going to happen. You have to understand your own makeup. But, later at night, don’t we also have to kind of reverse engineer to start to think about when are we cutting off what we’re eating, even if we are in the midst of a snack because we’re starting to stream some new show. What’s your advice about setting yourself up for a good day tomorrow?

Susan Okonkowski:
That’s a really tricky question, and here’s why. Sometimes, I would say always try not to eat anything about an hour and a half before you go to bed. And there’s a couple of different reasons for it. Anyone out there who may suffer from ulcers or any sort of acid reflux issues, you don’t want to eat and then lay down. And that snack that you have an hour and a half before you go to bed should be, again, a smaller snack, unless you can’t help it, and you’re one of those individuals who works in the evenings, comes home, and then has to go to bed shortly thereafter.

Susan Okonkowski:
Well, of course, you want to make sure that you fuel yourself appropriately for the next day, because you don’t want to just skip dinner just because, “Well, I’ve been busy and I didn’t have the opportunity to eat dinner and now I need to go to bed. I don’t want to eat too close to bed.” I would say, in a small meal, if that is the case, and make sure that you’re getting your overall needed calories in, but try to do it at least 90 minutes before you lay down in bed to allow for that digestion to start and everything else so you don’t have any sort of reflux problems. And like you said, you’re then helping yourself to set up for the next day.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, that’s great. And I really think that we, holistically, you’ve talked about so many different things and we could go down other roadmap trails here but we won’t have time, but the idea of sleep and what if you have sleep apnea, all these things, the quality of your mattress, right? All of this figures into “Why am I nodding off at 3:00 PM tomorrow afternoon? What’s going on?” There are so many things to look at, but this energy that we can get this boost from food, which is our main topic today is just so intriguing. And some of it, it’s common sense, and then we forget it. We sometimes let it go right by us.

Susan Okonkowski:
Yeah. Life gets busy. And it is one of those common things where when you’re really busy and your brain is firing in all kinds of different directions for work and family life and the house and maybe you’re traveling, that you kind of forget the basic foundational building blocks of just keeping yourself fueled and hydrated throughout the day so that you can keep going and you don’t hit the slump.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, as we wrap up here, we can recap a little bit, but give us some takeaways, the top things we should be thinking about of how we can boost our energy and reduce fatigue as we head through our days, whether it’s at work or at home.

Susan Okonkowski:
Couple of things just to kind of wrap up. Always try to fuel yourself every two to three hours. And with the fuel, you’re getting a mix of carbohydrate, protein, and fat. And just to think about some of those yummy snacks and or something you incorporate into a meal, fruit and nuts, hummus and crackers, cheese and crackers. Those kinds of foods are going to help you get through your day without hitting that midday slump. And don’t reach for the candy, the coffee, and the extra energy drinks, or the honey bun. They’re not going to make you feel good at the end of the day.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, that’s good advice. I don’t think I’ve had a honey bun in years, but if I were to see one, I’m telling you, I’d still be tempted. It’s just one of those things. There are certain things I want to jump off the shelf and go right into my hand. Sorry.

Susan Okonkowski:
Everything in moderation, right? Everything in moderation.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, and that is something that you’ve actually been preaching even in this episode and I know we’ve talked about it before. Balance. Moderation and balance. And here we are even talking about balancing nutrients and all of your snacks and meals. It is common sense, but sometimes, I lose it anyway. I don’t know about everybody else.

Susan Okonkowski:
Yeah, and there’s always room for a honey bun every and then, or a donut from the apple orchard this fall. Just to make sure that it’s not an everyday thing, because we’re human and everyone likes to enjoy a little treat now and then.

Chuck Gaidica:
Were you peeking in the kitchen and did you see that my wife, Susan, brought home a bag of donuts and apple cider? Were you peeking? Did you see that?

Susan Okonkowski:
No, I didn’t, but you’re going to enjoy one of those, right?

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, you know what I do and it’s my thing and my wife kids me? I enjoy a Cider Mill donut in pieces, that way in my mind I kind of think I haven’t had the whole one until by the end of the day I have, but it’s just my thing. I don’t ever sit down and eat a whole donut. It’s just a funny trait. It’s one of those wacky habits I have.

Susan Okonkowski:
You’re balancing it. That’s okay.

Chuck Gaidica:
Is that what it is?

Susan Okonkowski:
Yes.

Chuck Gaidica:
I can’t wait to tell her that you gave me like a prescription to get donut and cider. This is awesome. Well, it’s good to talk to you again. Thanks for all your help.

Susan Okonkowski:
Thank you so much, Chuck, for having me on.

Chuck Gaidica:
Oh, sure thing. That’s Susan Okonkowski, who’s a registered dietitian and a health care manager at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, helping us all get through this idea of how we can boost our energy and reduce fatigue. We want to thank you for listening to A Healthier Michigan Podcast. It’s brought to you by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. If you like the show and you want to know more… What are we? We’re up to episode 90 now, so we’ve got a lot of previous episodes with tons of great content. Trust me. And then, we’ve got future episodes coming. You can check us out online at ahealthiermichigan.org/podcast. You can leave us reviews or ratings on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. You can get all the new episodes for your smartphone, your tablet, your new iPhone, whatever it is. Be sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. I’m Chuck Gaidica. Be well.