A common problem that many of my clients face is shift work. Shift work can pose a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of individuals for a number of reasons. Shift patterns often change from day to day and therefore there is limited ability to have a regular mealtime routine. Meals are often consumed alone, in a rush and without appropriate eating environments or equipment. Little time for food often means grazing or snacking and with hunger levels all over the place, often high fat, high sugar foods are what shift workers reach for, which is why it is important to chat about nutrition tips for shift workers. It is also common for them to consume a large amount of food at night, with little during the day. as well as all this, high caffeine intakes associated with shift work may also have a negative impact on sleep and health.
So for overworked and exhausted shift workers what is the solution to help support them in getting the best nutrition and making the most of their health? Here are a few ideas & nutrition tips for shift workers to try from me. They aren’t miracle cures, but they might just help somewhat…
Nutrition tips for shift workers:
- Eat smaller meals, more often. This is important to keep energy levels up and to ensure you are getting enough in the way of essential nutrients. Eating very little during the day and then a big meal when you finish your shift can lead to reduced variety and therefore has the potential to leave you deficient of certain nutrients. It is important to try and eat regularly, spreading smaller meals out and reducing long periods with no food and energy. You could try asking your manager if you can take a series of mini breaks instead of having your break all in one go. This could allow you to be more productive throughout your shift and certainly will help to boost your energy levels better than a quick slug of coffee.
- Take some light exercise. When taking breaks make some time for light exercise, even something as little as walking up and down the stairs can be beneficial as exercise is known to release chemicals that helps to wake up the body and mind and so send you back to work feeling happy and refreshed. If you are lucky enough to have a nearby park or open space, use your break time to have a wander around in the outdoors and hopefully soak up some vitamin D while you are doing so (you never know, you might catch a glimpse of the sun).
- Make meals at home. For many shift workers it may be the problem of little access to anything remotely “healthy”. Many canteens and vending machines are stuffed full of crisps and chocolate and offer no hope of you eating healthily on your lunch break. Instead try to prepare some food at home and take it in for you to eat during the day. Taking in foods and healthy snacks made at home (please see below for some ideas) may sound like a lot of extra effort but many offices and areas provide spaces to keep and prepare foods at work. Additionally, you can always make extra when preparing meals at home for yourself or the family. Alternatively, ask whoever is preparing the meal to make a little extra for your lunchbox the next day.
- Avoid topping up on sugar. Many people rely on sugary foods to give them an energy burst during the day however, this is likely to lead to an energy slump an hour or so later and so it is best to avoid eating sugary foods during long shifts. Opt for wholegrain carbohydrates such as crackers, pasta salads, wholemeal wraps and sandwiches or something quick and easy such as a small handful of nuts to give you a longer lasting and nutrient-packed energy burst instead (see below for more healthy ideas).
- Keep yourself hydrated. It is a good idea to carry a bottle of water around with you or have one placed on your desk or your various working locations to remind yourself to drink whenever possible. Water is essential for keeping all bodily functions working smoothly and so if we become dehydrated we are likely to suffer from fatigue. It is a good idea to avoid soft or fizzy drinks which may give you an energy slump as well as fill you up on ‘empty calories’.
- Avoid drinking too much caffeine. Although caffeine is a stimulant, it can stay in your system for up to 8 hours and so may disrupt your sleep following on from your shift. Too much caffeine can also act as a diuretic and so may lead to dehydration. It is best to reply on food and nutrients to give you a energy boost keep you going throughout the shift, rather than just stimulating drugs!
- Get rest and relaxation. Wherever possible do take a break and give yourself some time out. If your finding it is not possible it may be time to have a chat with your manager as, everyone needs time out to relax, especially when working busy hours and long shifts.
- Get support from friends and family. This is imperative to allow you to look after your health in the long run. Rope friend and family in to helping out with preparing meals, helping with shopping and keeping unhealthy snacks out of the house.
Nutrition Tips for Shift Workers – Food ideas
When working night shifts is it a good idea to opt for protein and wholegrain carbohydrate foods before you begin your work. Both these give sustained energy and protein can keep you feeling fuller for longer and means you are less likely to reach for a high fat, high sugar snack mid way through your shift. The B vitamins in the wholegrain carbohydrates will also help keep your brain functioning effectively throughout the night shift.
Use fruit and vegetables as snacks throughout the day and remember that dried, tinned and fresh varieties all count. Juice or smoothies can also count towards your 5 A Day intake but only once; these are also great for a quick and refreshing energy boost around the middle of your shift.
Snack ideas for shift workers
Apple and cheese pieces, wholegrain bagel with peanut butter, oatcakes and marmite, hard boiled eggs, yoghurt with mixed fruit and oats, porridge, veggie sticks and hummous, tuna/salmon/egg rolls or sandwiches, chicken slices, dried fruit and nuts, vegetable soup, couscous salad, oat and fruit smoothie, wholemeal pasta salad, beans on toast and, of course, let’s not forget the ready packaged, easy to carry whole fruits and whole vegetables :-).
For more information see this EUFIC article on the implications of shift work on health and nutrition.
Don’t forget to check out my blog posts: