Good nutrition is important for everyone but for shift workers, healthy eating is vital to feeling your best, both on and off the job and for maintaining your mental, spiritual and physical health. Eating during shift work often requires a change in the type of foods chosen and the timing of meals.
If you work shifts, you probably experience more gastrointestinal problems, ulcers, constipation, diarrhea, loss of appetite and heartburn. Dehydration, another common problem, can cause headaches, dry skin and nasal irritation, making you more susceptible to colds, coughs, sore throats and the flu.
There is evidence that shift work can lead to stomach disorders, nutritional deficiencies, irregular appetite and weight gain or loss. There also seems to be a link between shift work and heart disease and cancer.
Some reasons for these problems include:
• Too much caffeine intake to stay awake
• High-fat snacking instead of eating meals
• Eating infrequently during the day, then over-eating during the evening
• Eating when digestion and other body functions are slowed down
• Eating meals in a rush, often without the company of family and friends
• Sedentary jobs and lack of opportunities to exercise
It is critical for shift workers to establish regular eating times. Skipping meals can result in fatigue, increased snacking, increased eating at the next meal, or even less overall food intake. Snacks can play an important part of a healthy eating pattern and are especially important during long shifts.
What to eat
• Pack food to take to work to avoid vending machines and take-out fast foods.
• Be sure each meal is balanced with protein, starch, vegetables and fruit.
• Taper off liquids as you near the end of your night shift.
• Place some crackers by your bed in case you wake up hungry during the day.
When to eat
• Try to avoid eating a large meal before work.
• Eat small, nutritionally balanced snacks throughout the shift.
• Eat the largest meal of the day when you wake up.
• Eat as little as possible — and avoid fatty foods entirely — toward the end of your shift.
The right food at the right time:
To promote sleep after completing their shift, workers may benefit from a high carbohydrate meal. Foods high in carbohydrates increase levels of serotonin, which promotes sleep. Cereal, bread/bagels, crackers or fruit are good high carbohydrate snacks.
To stay alert, shift workers may turn to protein foods. Protein foods have the opposite effect of carbohydrates and decrease serotonin levels. A high protein meal can make you feel more alert; so, it is important to include protein foods in meals and snacks during your shift. Food choices might include low fat cheese or meat, peanut butter, or hard-boiled eggs in sandwiches or with low fat crackers.
• When working afternoon and evening shifts, eat the main meal at midday instead of during the middle of the shift.
• When working night shift, the first main meal during waking hours should be late afternoon or early evening. After completing a night shift, a moderate snack will prevent going to bed hungry or too full.
Drink caffeinated beverages before your shift or early into it. Don’t have caffeine after midnight; it stays in your body for 6-8 hours. Limit caffeine to no more than 400 mg. a day (about 2 cups of coffee). Excessive caffeine may cause insomnia, headaches, anxiety, among other disorders.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/workschedules/
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, CA: http://www.cedars-sinai.edu/About-Us/News/News-Releases-2006/It-Can-Be-a-Hard-Days-Night-For-Weight-Watchers-on-the-Late-Shift.aspx
Writer: Kathryn K. Dodrill, MA, CFCS, Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences, Ohio State University Extension, Washington County/Buckeye Hills EERA, firstname.lastname@example.org
Reviewer: Michelle Treber, LD, MA, Family and Consumer Sciences Educator, Ohio State University Extension, Pickaway County/Heart of Ohio EERA, email@example.com