Working outside of the typical 9-5 workday can put a significant strain on your body and make it more difficult than ever to follow a positive routine. This type of work affects your internal clock, or circadian rhythm, which regulates sleep patterns, digestion, blood pressure and a number of other body functions. These disruptions can put shift workers at an increased risk for sleep disorders, chronic health conditions like diabetes or heart disease, depression and digestive problems. Fatigue can also significantly impact your safety and performance at work.
The good news is that as a shift worker, eating well, along with staying active, will help to prevent or improve many of these issues. A balanced diet will not only give you the energy you need to get through a long shift but will also help to boost your overall mood and improve your sleep when it’s time to rest. Here are some practical tips for eating as well as possible while on shift work:
Follow a routine. Create a meal schedule that works for you and adjust as needed—whether you are on the early morning or night shift or rotating between schedules. Aim to eat within an hour of waking up and have two other meals over a 24-hour period. For example, if you’re on nights, try to eat dinner (or your largest meal) before you start work ideally between 5:00-6:00 pm. Have a carbohydrate and protein-rich meal halfway through your shift and a nutritious snack break to avoid overloading your digestive system that naturally slows down at night. As always, continue to follow your hunger signals by eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. After your shift and before sleeping, eat a small, balanced breakfast to ensure that you don’t disrupt your sleep but also won’t wake up from hunger, allowing your body to rest and digest.
Pack nutritious meals and snacks. Get in the habit of bringing your meals and snacks to work so you’re less likely to visit the vending machine, order delivery or pick up fast-food on your way home. Convenience foods are often high in fat, sugar or salt which will give you an initial burst of energy, but can lead to fatigue, weight gain and other long-term health problems. Instead, pack a variety of fruits and vegetables and foods that are high in protein, have good fats, whole-grains and are low in sugar to ensure that nutritious options are within reach. Chicken, hummus and vegetables, cheese, nuts, eggs, tuna and plain yogurt are some ideas to get you started. And always remember to pack water with your lunch.
Meal plan. Preparing nutrient-dense meals and snacks can be especially difficult when you’re tired, stressed or short on time, so staying organized is key to a maintainable routine. Take time at the beginning of each week to plan your meals, get the groceries that you need and prepare both the food you take to work and what’s available when you’re done your shift. For example, chop veggies and fruit, boil eggs or make tuna salad and get into the habit of cooking in large amounts and freezing portions to quickly reheat. Lasagna, curry, gumbo and veggie or meat chili all freeze well and can be easily made in bulk. Using the slow cooker is another great option for shift workers where a little extra time before work will mean coming home to a homemade meal. Don’t forget about prepping oatmeal, muffins, egg burritos and other breakfast foods so they’re ready to eat after a long shift.
Stay hydrated. Drinking water regulates your body temperature, keeps your joints loose, prevents constipation and helps with alertness and short-term memory. Keep a reusable water bottle close by and drink it regularly throughout your shift. Many shift workers reach for caffeinated drinks to help with exhaustion, but caffeine can make falling and staying asleep a challenge. Save caffeinated drinks like coffee for the start of your shift and consider substituting them with herbal or decaffeinated tea later in your day. Similarly, it can be tempting to drink alcohol after a shift to help you relax and unwind, but this can actually interfere with your sleep cycle reducing the quality of your sleep. If you are having an alcoholic drink, try to finish it at least three hours before bedtime.
Get moving. Regular exercise will help you maintain a healthy weight, support digestion and increase energy levels. If possible, find ways to fit movement into your break time. Take the stairs, go for a quick walk outside or do some light stretching. This will help you find the energy to finish your shift, improve your mood and encourage more restful sleep. Also try to incorporate physical activity in your routine outside of work, ensuring that you get outdoors during daylight hours for some essential Vitamin D.
When you’re exhausted, hungry or feeling run down, it can be really difficult to make the right choices. If you’re having a hard time adjusting to shift work, or have noticed concerning patterns developing, these tips may be a good place to start. And just like many challenging things, the more you stick to it the easier these changes will become. Remember to have regular meals, plan ahead and stay hydrated to eat well for shift work.
A VHA dietitian may be able to help you create a routine that better supports your family, lifestyle and challenging schedule. Contact VHA’s Private Services team at 416-489-2500 ext. 4649 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about dietetics.
Reviewed By: Cali Guttman, RD
Sara Berdugo, RD