Nutrition Tips for Shift Workers

Working shift work can really upset your body’s internal clock and it can be hard to stay on track with healthy eating and exercise habits when your body is awake when it thinks it should be asleep. Three out of every ten Canadians work shift work, some working straight nights, straight afternoons or rotating between day and night shifts. Common problems that people who work shift work may encounter include:

• Changes in appetite

• Indigestion, heartburn or stomach ulcers

• GI problems including constipation, diarrhea and gas

• Weight gain or weight loss

• Trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep

• High blood pressure

• Increased stress on your body

The good news is all of the above concerns can be avoided by eating well and staying active, read below for some tips on feeling your best at both work and home when you are required to do shift work.

1. Eat your main meal of the day before going to work

Eating large meals during the night can cause heartburn, gas or constipation and can leave you feeling sleepy and sluggish. Having a good size, healthy meal prior to your shift that includes at least 3 of the 4 food groups can help to energize you throughout your shift. Have a small meal and healthy snacks throughout your shift to prevent feeling too hungry.

2. Pack your own healthy snacks

It can be really difficult to find healthy snacks during a night shift and vending machines may be your only source for food. Vending machines will typically only carry high fat, high sugar or salty snacks and sugary beverages so bringing your own healthy snack can prevent you from being tempted by these treats. Check out my previous post on “The Art of Healthy Snacking” for some great healthy snack ideas.

3. Avoid sugary foods and drinks

You may be tempted by the quick boost of energy a chocolate bar or sugary pop can give you but this feeling will be temporary and will likely leave you feeling very sluggish after coming down from this “sugar high”. Have a healthy snack and drink mainly water in order to prevent this from happening.

4. Avoid fatty, fried or spicy foods

These types of foods are the most likely to cause heartburn and indigestion and eating too many unhealthy fats also increases your risks for chronic disease such as heart disease and diabetes.

5. Stay well hydrated

Dehydration can make you feel even more tired and sluggish so be sure to drink plenty of water throughout your shift to prevent dehydration. Keep a water bottle with you throughout your shift and make a goal to drink 2 or 3 full bottles throughout the night even before you feel thirsty. Flavour your water with lemon slices or herbs like mint to make it more appealing and avoid drinking juices to stay hydrated as the calories in juice can add up very quickly.

6. Watch the caffeine

While drinking coffee, tea and other caffeinated beverages may be tempting to help you stay alert, be careful you don’t drink too much. Drinking too much caffeine can leave you feeling anxious, jittery and nauseas on the job and can prevent a good night’s sleep when you are done your shift. Keep to only 2 caffeinated beverages per day maximum and switch to decaf after this at least 4-6 hours before bed. Check out my post “Caffeine Nation” for more information on caffeinated beverages.

7. Avoid alcohol

Avoid having alcoholic beverages after work when you get home. While alcohol may help you feel more relaxed, it can also disturb your sleep.

8. Have a light snack when you get home before bed

If you are hungry when you get home from your shift it is perfectly fine to have a small snack before bed. It is a myth that eating before you go to sleep will cause you to gain weight, as long as you are choosing the right type of food. Try a bowl of whole grain cereal with milk or a piece of whole grain toast with peanut butter or jam.

9. Try to stick to as much of a routine as possible

While this may be much easier said than done, our bodies function best when they can get into a routine. If possible, on your days off try to eat and sleep around the same times that you would if you were working your regular shift so that your body’s internal clock can stay on schedule.

10. Invest in black out curtains

Black out curtains can be a life saver for a night shift worker as they can help to create complete darkness in your room even though the sun may be shining outside. The dark helps our body to produce a hormone called melatonin which helps to control you sleep and wake cycles.

11. Eat together

Whenever possible, try to eat at least one meal a day with your family. Research has found that families who eat together eat healthier, well-balanced meals with better portion control. Meal times are also an important chance to connect with each other when our lives are usually very hectic.

12. Stay active

You don’t have to go to the gym everyday or run a marathon, find an activity that you truly enjoy and try to get active for at least 30 minutes 5-7 days per week. Also try making your day more active by taking the stairs, parking further away and walking whenever possible. The list of benefits of including more physical activity in your life is endless but includes:

• Improving your mood

• Improving your sleep

• Managing stress

• Improving your energy levels

• Staying fit

• Lowering your risk for chronic disease such as diabetes and heart disease

Source: Adapted from Dietitians of Canada


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