Healthy Eating for Shift Workers

A healthy diet can be challenging enough for folks on a regular nine-to-five work schedule, but move your work shift eight or 16 hours ahead and whoa! How do you eat healthfully when your 24-hour clock is upside down and sideways?

A healthy diet can be challenging enough for folks on a regular nine-to-five work schedule, but move your work shift eight or 16 hours ahead and whoa! How do you eat healthfully when your 24-hour clock is upside down and sideways?

Eating very late at night or constantly throughout an evening or overnight shift will make it harder to stick to a balanced diet. Sticking as closely as possible to a normal day-and-night pattern of food intake can help. Here are some tips for managing meals and snacks when your work hours are shifted.

Plan your main meal at the beginning rather than middle of the shift. For example, night workers should eat their main meal before their shift starts, at regular dinnertime. Afternoon workers should have their main meal in the middle of the day. Avoid eating, or at least limit your food intake, between midnight and six in the morning.

Eating breakfast before day-sleep will help to avoid wakening due to hunger. However, this meal should be small, because a large meal one to two hours before sleep could cause difficulty in falling asleep.

If you are hungry between meals, add small, healthy snacks. Choose foods such as vegetable soups, salads, fruit salads, yogurt, wholegrain sandwiches, cheese or cottage cheese (topped with sliced of fruit), hard-boiled egg, and nuts.

Bring your own food to work. You’re more likely to eat healthfully if you pack your own meals rather than eating foods from restaurants, takeout counters, or vending machines.

Sit down to eat. Pause for meals. Eat at a relaxed pace. Eating on the go or in front of a computer encourages mindless overeating.

Moderate your caffeine consumption. Limit caffeine intake four to five hours before the end of your shift (caffeine stays in your body for many hours) to help your body wind down for home and relaxation.

Drink plenty of fluids. Your body often signals hunger and thirst in the same way. Bring a water bottle to work and fill it often. Not only will you save money on bottled drinks, but you’ll treat your body as well. Add a few slice of cucumber, lemon, or orange or a few tablespoons of juice for an added flavor boost without the calories and sugar of soda.

Prepare meals before your shift, so they’re ready to eat when you get home. Experiment with crock pot meals (which can cook foods over a long period of time) or try freezing portion sizes of your favorite healthy meals for easy access when you don’t have the time or are too tired to cook.

Have healthy foods readily available at home and at work. People who are sleepy are more likely to reach for unhealthy foods. Stock your kitchen with easy-to-eat raw vegetables and hummus, fruits, or a container of raw almonds and raisins (versus a muffin or cookies), so that when you’re tired but hungry, you make healthy food choices. Consider whole grains such as brown rice, wild rice, and rolled oats and breads and crackers made with all or mostly whole grains.

Exercise moderately. Try to take walks, walk up and down stairs, or stretch before or after your shift or during your breaks. People who exercise not only burn more calories during the day, but they sleep better as well.

Get the sleep you need. People who sleep the recommended seven to nine hours each day are healthier, fitter, and less likely to suffer from health issues than those who don’t sleep well. Remember that you can space out sleep with naps if a single period of rest isn’t possible with your schedule.

For More Information

Eating and Shift Work – Effects On Habits, Metabolism And Performance.
Scand J Work Environ Health 2010;36(2):150-162 www.sjweh.fi/show_abstract.php?abstract_id=2898)

Tips for Healthy Eating and Exercising When Working Shifts. National Sleep Foundation.
http://sleepfoundation.org/shift-work/content/tips-healthy-eating-and-exercising-when-working-shifts

Shift Work: Implications for Health and Nutrition.  European Food Information Council. www.eufic.org/article/en/artid/Shift-work-implications-for-health-and-nutrition

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Mary Saucier Choate

Mary Saucier Choate

Mary Saucier Choate, M.S., R.D.N., L.D., is a dietitian and long-time Co-op member. She is the manager for Outreach and Stakeholder Engagement at the Partnership for Food Safety Education.
Mary Saucier Choate

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