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Nutrition Tips for Shift Workers

Nutrition Tips for Shift Workers

Are you one of the 3 in 10 Canadians that work shifts? If so, you may find that eating well can be a real challenge. Especially during night shifts when the only food readily available may be from vending machines or fast food outlets. Yet healthy eating is vital to feeling your best, both on and off the job. Here's a look at health and nutrition issues shift workers often face and some practical tips to help you overcome common challenges.

Health issues affecting shift workers

Eating well and being active can help you avoid or address some of the key health issues. Research shows that shift workers:

  • are at increased risk of heart disease, angina, high blood pressure and stroke;
  • often feel tired or disoriented and have trouble falling asleep or getting a good sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with being overweight, a risk to your health; and,
  • experience more digestive problems such as constipation, diarrhea, gas, heartburn and indigestion. These problems can be aggravated by poor nutrition and lack of exercise, common among shift workers.

Shift work and nutrition

Working shifts can affect your health by interfering with your "internal body clock", known as the circadian rhythm, that functions to regulate the roughly 24 hour cycle of the human body. Working shifts can throw your circadian rhythm off. For example, your internal body clock tells your body to be awake in the daytime and asleep when it's dark. After working through the night, you may want to go to sleep just when your body thinks it's time to wake up!

Digestive processes slow down in the evening and overnight. When this rhythm is interrupted by shift work, what you eat may be out of sync with what your body is able to process. Fats will not be cleared from the blood stream as efficiently and blood sugars will not be regulated appropriately. That is why some foods that you tolerate well during the day may trouble you if you have them late at night.

Use these simple healthy eating tips to help you feel great and stay alert at home and on the job:

Brown-bag it. Packing healthy meals and snacks at home will make it easier to eat well on your shift. Include a variety of nutritious foods from all four food groups in Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide.

Go for balance. Enjoy plenty of vegetables and fruit and whole grain products. Choose lower fat milk products like skim, 1% or 2% milk and yogurt and lean meats and alternatives like boiled eggs or peanut butter. See My Food Guide to find out how many Food Guide Servings you should choose each day.

Avoid high-fat, fried or sugary foods. To prevent indigestion or 'heartburn' consume lower fat foods that are not fried or too spicy. Foods high in sugar may give you a short burst of energy, but can ultimately leave you feeling sluggish.

Watch your portions. If you work shifts you may find yourself eating a large meal twice, first at work and then again at home. This can amount to too many calories that can lead to weight gain. If you're planning to enjoy a large meal after work, try having lighter meal or snacks at work to tide you over.

Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water and other fluids to prevent dehydration, which can leave you feeling tired. Remember that by the time you feel thirsty you are likely already dehydrated. Keep a water bottle close by and drink regularly throughout your shift.

Eat meals according to time of day, not your shift. If you start work in the afternoon, have your main meal in the middle of the day, rather than in the middle of your shift. If you're working nights, eat your main meal before your shift starts, preferably between 5 and 7 p.m.

Have a late night pick-up. A snack with a little protein will provide sustained energy late at night when you start to feel tired. Try fruit with a small piece of lower fat cheese or half a small whole grain bagel with peanut butter. A late night pick-up will help keep you alert when your body is programmed for sleep.

Cut down on caffeine. Caffeine stays in your system for up to eight hours which can make it difficult to fall asleep later. It's best to have caffeinated drinks before or early in your shift. Even better, switch to decaffeinated tea or coffee and enjoy fruit juice, lower fat milk or water.

Have a light snack before bed. You can improve the quality of your sleep by not going to bed too full or too hungry. A light carbohydrate rich snack such as whole grain cereal with fruit or whole grain toast and jam are a good choice.

Stay active. Some light exercise before or midway through your shift will give you energy to finish your shift, improve your mood and help you sleep better. Do some stretches during your break or go for a brisk walk.

Maintain a healthy body weight. A healthy body weight can reduce your chances of getting heart disease, diabetes and even some cancers. Learn more about how you can achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

Copyright © Dietitians of Canada 2014. All rights reserved.

Dietitians of Canada acknowledges the financial support of EatRight Ontario by the Ontario government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Province.