Dietary Strategies for Shift Workers to Boost Energy
I’m all too familiar with that 7-a.m. feeling following 3 night shifts in a row with only fractured and fitful rest in the days between. I’m in a mental haze, able to take in little and process even less. The world gradually slips away and the only thing I can focus on is the malaise that has overtaken my body. Every muscle aches, begging for rest and a return to a normal circadian rhythm.
I’ve worked nights both as a CNA at a hospital as well as a military service member at tactical operations centers or guard posts. Currently, I’m a dietitian. While I don’t work nights anymore, there are some key dietary strategies I wish I would have known and implemented to maintain optimal health and nutrition as a shift worker.
1. Follow a Healthy Diet.
It may seem obvious, but stick with me. Obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes are more prevalent among night or mixed shift workers than among day shift workers. In a large population of nurses spanning 25 years, researchers estimated that an unhealthy diet was responsible for nearly 75% of all diabetes cases. About 10% of the cases, however, were attributed to an interaction between night shift work and lifestyle. Translation: it’s especially important for shift workers to eat healthily. The combination of an unhealthy diet and shift work puts you at a greater risk for disease than an unhealthy diet alone. Keep healthy snacks for shift workers on hand and build a healthy meal plan tailored to night shift workers.
- Strategy – Eat wholesome foods without overindulging. There are a million dietary philosophies, and it’s easy to get bogged down with all the macros, “rules,” and other restrictive prescriptions. If the bulk of your diet is whole foods (fresh or frozen fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans, nuts, dairy, and meats) cooked how your grandma might have made them (with minimal highly processed additives), and you eat in moderation, you’ve tackled the most important parts of a healthy diet. One dietary approach advocated by many health promotion organizations is the Mediterranean diet. It’s not the only healthy approach but can be a good option for many individuals.
2. Boost Intake of Prebiotics and Probiotics.
Shift work may disrupt the ratio of healthy to unhealthy bacteria in your digestive system, potentially increasing your risk of diabetes and heart disease. Although more research is required to determine what role, if any, probiotics have in improving health outcomes among shift workers, prebiotics and probiotics are generally regarded as a healthy addition to most diets.
- Strategy – Eat prebiotics and probiotics daily. Prebiotic foods are those that nourish your existing intestinal bacteria and include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Probiotics are healthy bacteria found in cultured and aged foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, and kombucha. Prebiotics and probiotics can also be taken as dietary supplements.
3. Limit Late-Night Eating.
Shift work causes circadian misalignment, a condition where your body behaves hormonally and metabolically like you’re asleep during normal sleeping hours even though you’re awake. Studies show that late-night meals among shift workers result in elevated blood triglyceride and glucose levels as well as reduced insulin sensitivity, a metabolic state similar to diabetes. Nighttime eating is thought to, at least partly, explain why many night shift workers have a harder time maintaining a healthy weight despite consuming a similar number of calories as counterparts working a day shift. Animal studies provide further evidence that nighttime eating may directly lead to obesity.
- Strategy – Space your meals approximately 3 hours apart during normal hours of wakefulness. For example, if you work from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., you might choose to eat a light meal at 8 a.m. (too much before sleeping may lead to indigestion), sleep from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., eat at 6 p.m. and again at 9 or 10 p.m., refraining from further eating during your shift. If hunger is a problem mid-shift, try eating a small, fiber-rich snack like nuts, edamame beans, lentils, vegetable soup, popcorn, toast, whole fruit, or canned artichoke hearts. Keep in mind that midnight cravings may be due to sleep deprivation rather than an actual need for food.
4. Eat Smaller, Lower Fat Meals.
Mental and physical fatigue is suspected to contribute to an increase in worker injuries and error during night shifts. Larger or high-fat meals may further increase feelings of fatigue, especially after periods of poor sleep. Be especially vigilant on the meal immediately before your shift and any meals you eat during your shift as these are the meals most likely to lead to fatigue.
- Strategy – On the days you work, eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and lean meats while limiting high-fat foods like chips, fried foods, pizza, or burgers. Stop eating once you feel satisfied rather than continuing to the point of feeling full. For example, following the same meal pattern suggested above, you might eat oatmeal with berries and Greek yogurt at 8 a.m., a vegetable stir fry with tofu over rice at 6 p.m., and a turkey wrap with crackers and a piece of fruit at 9 or 10 p.m.
This is the first part of our series on dietary strategies for shift workers. Stay on the lookout for part two, where we’ll dive into the science behind herbal supplements and stimulants commonly used to promote alertness in shift work.
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Ron is a registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, and writer. As a retail dietitian, Ron advises on and writes about the latest food trends and products and has been featured on numerous local news outlets. Ron has worked in various settings as a health professional including hospitals, corporate wellness, and nutritional supplement R&D. Ron is also a member of the Utah National Guard where he serves as an operations officer.