Ask a Dietitian

Ask a Dietitian

"Diana, just a quick heads up to let you know we are still using your cookbook and the guys will often be heard saying what would Diana say about this or that....really good feed back... I made your potato salad and the oriental coleslaw on Sat. for a family luncheon and had rave reviews so thanks again."

Maeghan Henke
BC Hydro

Shift Work and Healthy Eating

January 29th, 2009

What we eat and when we eat it impacts greatly on our health and sense of wellbeing. Food can affect our energy level, sleep patterns and digestive systems. Throw in shift work to the mix and these problems worsen. Often people working the afternoon or night shift will grab food on the fly when they have a second, eat more refined carbohydrates in search of energy or comfort, skip meals and snacks and eat lower quality foods that tend to be higher in fat. They also tend to use more caffeine and alcohol. The human body runs on a circadian rhythm and gut motility and enzyme activity is decreased at night. This can lead to constipation and absorption problems. Moreover, the food you eat at night is burned less efficiently and may cause weight gain.

Challenges faced by shift workers:

  • Time constraints (when to grocery shop and prepare food)
  • Fatigue (changing shifts, sleeping poorly during your day sleep, not getting enough sleep)
  • Hard to digest food at night
  • Isolation (fewer opportunities to connect with family and friends at mealtime)
  • Cafeteria may be closed at night
  • Fewer healthy restaurant choices available at night
  • Easy access to vending machines

Common Problems Experienced by Shift Workers:

Digestive Problems:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Heartburn
  • Ulcers

Heart Disease Risk Factors:

  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Inactivity
  • Diabetes

Suggestions to help maintain normal metabolism and digestion, promote restful sleep and prevent weight gain:

Eat less, eat light at night…
Some simple things to think about are to eat small amounts throughout the shift, eat snacks containing protein to help keep you stay alert and limit refined carbohydrate snacks as they will make you sleepy. Choose lower fat foods as fat slows the emptying of the stomach and requires more effort to digest. Eat slowly and stop when you are full. Drink plenty of water and be as active as you can.

Meal timing:
For afternoon shifts try eating the main meal in the middle of your day rather than the middle of your shift. This way you will eat less late at night. For example if you work 3:30-11:30pm and you sleep 1am to 9am, have breakfast by 10 am and consider making a hot meal at home for your lunch before you go to work around 1 or 2pm.Take snacks containing protein and a lighter dinner to work such as a sandwich with meat and cheese and bell pepper strips.

If you work the night shift from 7:30pm -7:30 am or 11:30pm -7:45am eat your main meal before you go to work at 5 pm and no later than 7pm. Snack lightly during your shift and have a small meal at the midnight break. 3am to 4am is when you will feel most tired so this is a good time to have a snack with a protein, small amount of whole grain and a fruit and/or vegetable. Try 1/2 a whole grain pita filled with tuna or hummus and vegetables or a fruit and nut energy bar and an orange.

After the shift but before you sleep, eating a small light snack that is high in carbohydrates and lower in protein and fat will help you sleep. Try a small bowl of cooked oatmeal, toast and jam or cereal and milk.

Other tips:

  • Limit the caffeinated beverages you consume during your shift, especially in the last half of the shift so that you are ready to sleep when you get home.
  • Try eating more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds and lots of water to help keep you regular. Try to have a bowel movement every 24 hours and don’t ignore your natural urges and signals.
  • Avoid carbonated beverages and chewing gum as you tend to swallow more air. Eat slowly and quit smoking.

The Bottom Line:
Focus on eating more in the first half of your day and taper as you get closer to bed. Don’t make the biggest meal of your day in the middle of the night and try to fit in regular activity on your days off and after your day shifts.