What to Eat When You Have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

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Following a chronic fatigue syndrome diet can be an important part of managing the condition, which is also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS). While diet won't cure chronic fatigue syndrome, eating to boost your energy and address possible nutrient deficiencies can help you experience less muscle pain, minimize extreme and ongoing fatigue, and feel better overall.

A chronic fatigue syndrome diet is focused on eating more balanced and nutrient-rich meals and snacks and avoiding certain foods and drinks that could be worsening your symptoms. It will take some trial and error to find what works best for you, and that starts with learning what you can about how food may be impacting your symptoms.

Benefits

There isn't much good quality research on diet and nutrition for chronic fatigue syndrome, and the research that is available isn't conclusive. ME/CFS is believed to involve chronic inflammation. So far, an anti-inflammatory diet hasn't been studied for this disease. However, because it's a healthy diet overall, many doctors recommend it for people with this condition.

A 2017 review on nutritional treatments for chronic fatigue syndrome published in Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy found that many people with ME/CFS have vitamin, mineral, and essential fatty acid deficiencies.

Eating a healthy and balanced chronic fatigue syndrome diet may help to correct underlying nutrient deficiencies that could be contributing to ME/CFS symptoms. Supplements, if needed, may also help.

A review of studies on diet and nutritional supplements published in 2017 in the Journal of Nutrition and Human Dietetics found some evidence that certain components in foods improved fatigue and other symptoms. They included:

The polyphenols in chocolate are a type of antioxidant that may be especially important in chronic fatigue syndrome. One study specifically looked at the benefits of polyphenols in dark chocolate and found that they minimized symptoms associated with ME/CFS. Foods like green tea, berries, and legumes also contain polyphenols. They may also help reduce symptoms, but they haven't been studied specifically.

Polyphenols and other types of antioxidants are believed to reverse damage to molecules that may cause illness. One theory about the underlying mechanisms of chronic fatigue syndrome is that oxidative stress plays a part, and antioxidants combat the free radicals that overwhelm the body as a result of this process.

There is also some evidence from a review of 22 studies that supplementing with either D-ribose or omega-3 fatty acids reduces some of the symptoms of ME/CFS.

Most of these studies focus on supplementing the diet because low levels of many nutrients were found in people with chronic fatigue syndrome. However, it makes sense to turn to food in order to boost your nutrient intake before you add supplements.

How It Works

The goal of the chronic fatigue syndrome diet is to use nutrition to reduce fatigue, prevent nutrient deficiencies, and keep inflammation in check. There aren't any rules here. Simply aim for foods that provide a steady supply of long-lasting energy and a healthier balance of fats and antioxidants to reduce inflammation-promoting chemicals in your body.

Duration

The chronic fatigue syndrome diet is meant to be a long-term healthy eating plan that you can and should follow for the rest of your life if you have this condition. Although you might find that it helps your ME/CFS symptoms, it's also a diet that promotes good health overall.

What to Eat

Compliant Foods

  • Fruits (any, especially berries)

  • Vegetables (any, especially leafy greens and orange-colored options)

  • Dried beans or legumes

  • Whole or cracked grains

  • Fish and seafood

  • Whole soy foods (e.g., tofu or tempeh)

  • Fermented dairy (e.g., yogurt or kefir)

  • Healthy fats like olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds

  • Dark chocolate (in moderation)

  • Spices and herbs (fresh or dried)

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Fast foods and fried foods

  • Frozen or packaged meals

  • Packaged snacks

  • Sweetened soft drinks

  • Foods made with added sugar or white flour

  • Margarine or oils with omega-6 fats

  • Alcohol

  • Caffeine (use in moderation)

There is no one-size-fits-all chronic fatigue syndrome diet, and you'll find it easier to stick with this healthy eating pattern if you make it your own. It's a flexible way of eating that's based on a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of whole foods with each meal and snack.

Best Choices

Fruits: Berries, cherries, and apples are among the highest sources of polyphenols. Given the research on the polyphenols in dark chocolate, they're worth adding to your diet.

Vegetables: Try to include as many brightly-colored leafy greens and red or orange vegetables (think carrots, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes) for their rich antioxidant content. Aim for a good mix of cooked and raw; cooking enhances some nutrients, while eating them raw preserves fiber and other nutrients.

Fish and seafood: They're all good sources of lean protein, but fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are especially good sources of omega-3 fats, which can reduce inflammation and may improve your symptoms.

Nuts and seeds: Walnuts win in the nut category, along with flax seeds (or flax meal, which is easier to digest), chia seeds, and hemp seed—all great plant sources of omega-3 fats.

Fermented dairy: Unsweetened kefir and Greek yogurt are good sources of beneficial bacteria. They support a healthy gut, but also provide a food source of probiotics, which research suggests might be helpful for reducing your symptoms.

Healthy fats: Olive oil, olives, avocados, and all nuts and seeds provide healthy, unsaturated fats, which can help to reduce inflammation.

Chocolate: It's a good source of polyphenols, but stick to a little bit of dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate bars or chocolate desserts.

Foods to Limit

Snack foods and packaged meals: They're usually highly processed and made with pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats like corn, soybean, or other vegetable oils.

Sweets, desserts, white bread: These are made with added sugar and white flour, which can trigger the production of pro-inflammatory compounds called cytokines.

Caffeine and alcohol: These may increase inflammation, but they're also known to increase cortisol—a stress hormone that might overload your already exhausted body. However, there's little research on their effects on ME/CFS, so use them in moderation and be aware that they may trigger symptoms.

Elimination Diets

Aside from these pro-inflammatory foods, there might be foods that just don't agree with you because of an intolerance or allergy. An elimination diet might help. To help identify foods to cut out, keep a food and symptom journal to identify any patterns.

If you feel worse after eating certain foods, talk to your doctor about testing. A 2012 study on dietary habits in people with chronic fatigue syndrome concluded that dietary changes should be based on proven allergies or intolerances rather than one single diet recommendation.

Recommended Timing

There are no firm guidelines about when to eat, but you might have more energy if you don't skip meals and you spread them out throughout the day. At a minimum, aim for three meals a day, starting with a breakfast shortly after you wake.

If you feel hungry in between meals, add some balanced snacks, like berries with Greek yogurt and a handful of nuts. Balanced meals and snacks should include a variety of food groups, like fruits, vegetables, and especially some protein and/or healthy fat to help keep you full and energized until your next meal.

Cooking Tips

When preparing your food, cook with olive oil instead of corn or vegetable oil, and use healthy cooking methods like sautéing, grilling, roasting, braising, or air-frying instead of deep-fat frying.

To retain more nutrients in your vegetables, lightly steam instead of boiling them. Also, herbs and spices are concentrated sources of antioxidants, so use them liberally.

Considerations

Until there's more research on the chronic fatigue syndrome diet, the best recommendation is to test foods out for yourself and see what helps (or doesn't). Make dietary changes one at a time so you can gauge their effect on your health. Sudden or extreme changes—even beneficial ones—could temporarily make your symptoms worse.

If you want to try some of the supplements mentioned, be sure to work with your doctor. Not all supplements are appropriate for everyone, and some can interact with other medications or have unwanted side effects.

Diet changes help your body to work better and heal itself, and that often takes time. Try to be patient and dedicate yourself to this process. Even if your diet doesn't seem to make a difference in your symptoms, remember that many aspects of the chronic fatigue syndrome diet are beneficial for your overall health.

A Word From Verywell

Whether you have chronic fatigue syndrome or another chronic health condition, a healthy and balanced diet can support your body and help it to work better so you may feel better. The best diets are based on whole foods and allow for flexibility in your food choices. Quick-fix or fad diets are hard to stick to and seldom work in the long run, so remember if a diet sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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