Nutrition for Shift Workers
How to eat healthy with shift work
It is hard to manage health, productivity and achieve your personal best weight with today’s demanding work and family life commitments, landscape of unhealthy convenience foods and short window of time to fit in enough sleep and physical activity.
Toss in the additional stressors of shift work and the challenge can become even bigger.
Read on for some healthy eating tips to help you navigate changing work schedules and what to eat when working night shifts.
Why are healthy eating habits so essential for shift work?
Shift workers have been shown to:
- have a higher risk of sleep loss, obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
- have more digestive issues (nausea, heartburn, constipation and diarrhea)
- struggle with depression, stress and relationship issues.
- have a higher risk of drug and alcohol addictions and safety issues such as accidents and injury.
- suffer with more fatigue, lower concentration and reduced productivity.
It is no surprise that nutritious meals and snacks influence many of the above challenges quite significantly.
Outside of taking personal responsibility for your nutrition at work, employers should take interest too. Improperly fueled employees have a direct connection to productivity, safety and wellness and can therefore influence the bottom line.
The most common shift work professions that may benefit from added workplace wellness and safety support include:
- Production, transportation, and material moving (mechanics, repairers, construction workers, machine operators, truck drivers, assemblers, inspectors and equipment cleaners)
- Technical, sales and administration (salespersons, retail workers and administrative support)
- Managerial and professional (executives, computer scientists and teachers)
- Protective services (emergency medical services workers, police and firefighters)
- Healthcare services (residents and on-call physicians and nurses).
- Other services (healthcare support, food, cleaning, personal and private household)
How might shift work influence health, productivity and weight?
The reasons shift work may be bad for your health are twofold:
1. It can influence our biology
- Influences our circadian rhythm, which is the physical, mental and behavioral changes that take place in a 24-hour period which are tied to lightness and darkness.
- If you disrupt the circadian rhythm it can disrupt our overall energy level, metabolism, digestion, cardiovascular system, hormones and immunity.
2. It often impacts our lifestyle habits
- Habit formation is hard when your schedule constantly changes.
- It is also difficult to keep track of what and how much food is eaten with a fluctuating schedule and changing appetite/sleep schedule.
- Grocery shopping, cooking and meal preparation changes dramatically, often not for the better.
- Shift work can also be isolating and a challenge to participate in social activities, family meals and scheduled physical activity.
What are the top nutrition strategies that can help shift workers?
Examining nutrition is one of the most critical strategies that will influence the health, productivity and weight management of shift workers. Here are some top strategies to get started:
1. Plan an eating schedule for each of your shifts.
Plan to eat within one hour of waking and then schedule meals and snacks every 3-5 hours until you go to bed. This will mean that for most people they will eat between 3-6 times per day.
For example, if your shift is 11pm to 7am and you wake up at 4pm then your eating schedule may looks something like this:
By 5pm Wake-up Meal
8-10 pm Pre-shift Meal
12-2 am Work Snack
4-6 am Work Meal
7-8 am Bedtime Snack
2. Ensure meals have both carbohydrates AND protein
Carbohydrates provide the brain and muscles with energy while protein is key for satiety and fullness. Balance your meals with 3 things (grains/starches, veggies/fruits and a source of protein). Balance your snacks with at least 2 things (veggies/fruits/grains/starches and a source of protein).
Need some ideas? Check out our article and video on “Healthy Lunch Hacks” for time saving tips and 7 speedy lunch packing ideas: LUNCH IDEAS.
3. Curb caffeine in the middle of your shift.
Caffeine can stay in your system for as long as eight hours, so decrease coffee, tea and other caffeine sources from the middle of your shift onward.
4. Watch alcohol intake.
Despite alcohol initially making you sleepy, it can hinder entering into the deep restorative stages of sleep.
5. Avoid large meals late into your shift.
Taking in lots of food and fluid before bed can cause indigestion and make it difficult to fall asleep, as well as cause you to wake up to urinate frequently at night.
6. Don’t go to bed starved.
If you are chronically dieting, carb deprived and simply not eating enough, your sleep will be disturbed. Seek help from a Registered Dietitian to create a food plan that achieves a good balance of nourishment for health and achievement of your personal best weight.
What other lifestyle factors are important if I am a shift worker?
Talk to your doctor. Ask your physician for a referral to a sleep medicine physician who can help you create a healthy plan for “sleep hygiene” or practical and medical solutions for getting enough sleep, falling asleep quickly and staying asleep.
Get help for emotional health. Give yourself enough time to truly unwind before bed. If you are struggling with depression or anxiety, it can be difficult to get enough quality or quantity of sleep. Work with a registered psychologist and your physician to process and strategize feeling better and getting the help you need.
Assess when you exercise. Research shows exercise before bed can make it difficult to fall asleep, so you may need to move physical activity to another time.
Power down stimulating activities. Turn off smartphones, computers and television at least 30-60 minutes before going to bed. Take the television out of your bedroom.
Need some personalized help for an eating plan for shift work, a weight challenge or health issue? Book a free phone call to discuss your needs and which Calgary Dietitian or Online Nutritionist in our practice can help.
As Registered Dietitians that specialize in meal planning, weight concerns, emotional eating, eating disorders, digestive health, heart health, diabetes, pediatric nutrition and sports nutrition we can see you in our local Calgary Nutritionist office or as an Online Dietitian by phone or video conferencing for virtual nutrition counseling. Find out more about our Registered Dietitian Nutrition Counseling Programs here.
As university trained top Registered Dietitians, you can count on us for credible advice and practical meal planning so you don’t have to stress about food anymore. You can achieve a healthy and joyous relationship with food and your body. Let’s talk about what this can look like for you.
You might also want to check out these previous articles on our blog:
About Andrea Holwegner
CEO, Registered Dietitian, Counseling Practice Director & Professional Speaker
Andrea the «Chocoholic Nutritionist» is founder and CEO of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc. since 2000. She is an online nutrition course creator, professional speaker and regular guest in the media. Andrea is the recipient of an award by the Dietitians of Canada: The Speaking of Food & Healthy Living Award for Excellence in Consumer Education....Read more
“For example, if your shift is 11pm to 7am and you wake up at 4pm then your eating schedule may looks something like this:
By 5pm Wake-up Meal
8-10 pm Pre-shift Meal
12-2 am Work Snack
4-6 am Work Meal
7-8 am Bedtime Snack”
On what planet do shift workers get up 7 hrs before they work? Why would they? Most people only wake up 2-3 hrs before they start work so why are you using such a ridiculous example? Also you have them going to bed right after work. Seriously I’m questioning your knowledge in this arena just by the poor example you have used. Logically, eating within 2 hrs of waking up and every 4-5 hrs after makes sense but you clearly do not know jack about shift work whatsoever.
Hello There – thanks for your note. While I’m not a shift worker myself the example I used was actually from a client who is a healthcare worker that was a working mom so because her kids get home from school she is indeed having to get up at 4pm to have family time and a family meal before her shift. It sounds like you might not have to get up so early with your personal situation so that is great. The most important thing to keep in mind is the part you mentioned in your final sentence of your comment – eat within 2 hours of waking up and every 4-5 hours after that. The example I provided is just that – an example to illustrate how a proposed meal schedule could look. There are many different jobs, commuting times, shift start times, lengths of a shifts, family situations/responsibilities that will influence sleep/wake patterns so absolutely feel free to customize what makes sense for you.
As a night shift worker (10p-6:15ish). I go to bed at 9am and I am up by 2pm. I have my own personal reasons for my lack of sleep. Her example would be close to my schedule. This is typical of most third shift workers I work with. My co-worker has a schedule like yours. wakes up within a few hours of shift and goes to sleep after a while of being home.
Thanks for your comment Samantha!
Great response, Andrea. I think the reply to you was pretty harsh and was written by a night shift worker lacking sleep. As I go to work at 7pm and work until 7am. Your schedule sort of works, except the pre-shift meal is my wake up meal. Then I snack until approx 1230am when I have my night time dinner. I snack again at times for the rest of the night. If I am not planning to go to bed for another shift, I might have breakfast. However, if I’m going to try to go to sleep, I’m not going to have breakfast until I get up. I’m not usually hungry anyway from snacking all night. We here at work are trying to come up with a night shift workers diet plan.
Hello Pamela – thanks for your note here. I can imagine it isn’t easy to figure out the best way to keep your energy up on night shift and manage your overall health and wellness isn’t easy. It sounds like you’ve done some experimenting and have a system that works for you. It would be totally fine to go to sleep and then have your breakfast when you wake up. Best wishes for health and productivity – keep on experimenting!
As a long time client of Andrea’s, when I started shift work last year (6:30pm to 5am), I immediately applied the mini-meal schedule and made sure I took healthy balanced snacks. I did not find the opposite schedule to bother me, other than the isolation. The routine of working life helped me to focus on meal preparation and planning.
I struggle with eating properly on my days off and a few days I suffer from lack of sleep. The quick balanced meal ideas will help me here! It is amazing what sticks with you from the dietitian sessions!
Thanks for letting me know this was a helpful article for you. Best wishes for your shift work as I can imagine this isn’t easy but your organization and planning skills will make a difference for sure.