Shift work often requires eating at night, a time when the stomach and digestive system are normally at rest. Shift workers are highly susceptible to stomach and digestive issues as a result of irregular eating habits. 30-45% of shift workers report chronic digestive problems due to the kinds of foods eaten during work and before bed. Eating a large meal, especially one that includes greasy, spicy or heavy protein foods can lead to sluggishness while on the job.
Eating well when your timetable is so backward can be difficult. It is vital you adjust your meal routine around your schedule. Here are some important nutrition tips to follow:
- Do not skip meals
- Take a healthy meal to work with you. Vending machine choices are often high in fat, sodium and simple carbohydrates, making them less than ideal.
- Avoid eating a large meal at the end of your shift. You may have trouble digesting and sleep could be disrupted. Eat larger meals when you are most active and require more calories.
- Drink plenty of water throughout your shift. This will help to keep your energy level up and help to prevent cravings.
- Choose foods high in fiber and lean protein. These foods will satisfy longer. Foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrate may provide you with a quick burst of energy, but will not sustain you.
Time your meals and activities to match your “day”.
Establish a normal meal schedule regardless of your work hours. Try to eat three meals a day spaced at consistent intervals. Be consistent when on any one schedule.
Try to schedule at least one meal a day with your family.
Avoid food and beverages containing caffeine within four hours of bedtime. If your drink coffee, choose decaffeinated.
Eating during evening and night hours requires special considerations. Our digestive tract’s daily rhythm is not “set” for digestion at night. However, this does not mean you should skip eating when working these schedules. No matter what schedule you work, plan well-balanced meals for your shifts.
Protein – Your first meal after sleep should contain protein. Heavier proteins should be used sparingly, and eaten several hours before work or bedtime. Heavy proteins take longer to digest, so it is best to choose from lighter sources of protein right before and during work. Avoid frying during meal preparation. Here are examples of different proteins.
Heavy Proteins – Beef, Pork, Tube Meats, Eggs with Yolks, High-fat cheeses
Light Proteins – Chicken, Turkey, Fish, Egg Whites, Low-fat dairy products, Legumes (beans, peas and lentils)
Afternoon and Evening Work
Breakfast (about 8-10am)- Regardless of when you get up, breakfast is important. Eat soon after rising. This will help stimulate your metabolism, signaling the beginning of your “day”. Suggestions: Protein, whole-grain breads or high-fiber cereals, low-fat dairy products, fresh fruit.
Main Meal (about 1-2pm)- Light protein, some fat (preferably plant-based, 15-20 grams), complex carbohydrates such as vegetables, fruits, whole-grain pasta or bread, rice, potato. Caffeine OK.
Work Meal Break (7-8pm)- Choose foods easy to digest. Poultry, fish, vegetables, fruit, whole grains and high-fiver cereals are good choices. Reduce intake of high fat foods or spicy foods. Keep this meal light and small. No caffeine.
Night Work – Follow the same suggestions as afternoon and evening work, only change the times of the meals eaten. Working at night requires eating lighter, easy to digest foods. Again, avoid fats and spicy foods while at work.
Breakfast (about 5-7 pm)- This is time for the traditional “dinner” type foods if you plan to have them. If you are planning on going back to sleep prior to work, make this meal smaller and lighter. Consume protein, fats (preferably plant-based, 15-20 grams), complex carbohydrates and low-fat dairy products.
Work Meal Break – Follow suggestions for afternoon and evening work meal break. No caffeine during second half of shift.
Snack Supplements (before or after work)
Fruit, vegetables with low-fat dip, high-fiber cereals, pretzels, granola bars, dried fruit, low-fat dairy products, low-fat popcorn, nuts or seeds, high-fiber crackers
If you sleep soon after work, keep bedtime snacks small and light. If you do not sleep until later, the meal can be larger, but not heavier.
Avoid alcohol near bedtime, it can disrupt sleep cycles.
Have a sleep ritual. Go to sleep as soon as you can after work. Avoid getting caught up in chores or errands. Sleep deprivation can lead to food cravings.
Exercise boosts alertness and will create better daytime sleep. If you have a break where you can get a few minutes of activity in, take advantage! Avoid exercise right before going to sleep.