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A dietitian's healthy eating top tips for shift workers

The latest author to contribute to our Health and Wellbeing blog is Laura-Jane Hobbs, Nutrition Support Dietitian and Clinical Dietetic Lead, on the topic of making healthy lifestyle choices while trying to juggle the challenges of shift work.

From swapping sugary snacks for healthier options that will keep you feeling full with more energy for longer, to foods which can help you get a good night’s (or day’s) sleep after work – read more for Laura-Jane’s top tips:

“In the same way that driving instructors sometimes hit the curb, relationship counsellors may argue with their partner and an orthopaedic surgeon can still break a bone, dietitians like me can fall into any of the many traps that work pressures, lack of time and loss of focus can lead us into, when trying to practice what we preach! Throw in a 12 hour shift and antisocial hours and even those with the best of intentions can fall foul to bad habits!

More than one fifth of the NHS workforce works a rotational shift pattern. This can put a significant strain on your body. Shift work not only disrupts your normal sleep pattern, it can really take its toll on your diet and exercise regime too.

Shift workers are more likely to have general health issues, digestive complaints, higher body mass index and are more prone to long term health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Therefore it’s really important to think about how you can protect your health and pick the right fuel for your body during your shifts.

Busy schedules and long hours may leave us reaching for unhealthy grab-and-go solutions, or even visiting the drive through on the way home. This seems very appealing when having worked long, busy hours in often physically or mentally draining roles – we feel like we deserve a treat! On an occasional basis, this would be fine.

However, these often high fat, high sugar foods ultimately only worsen fatigue, sluggishness and motivation, leading to a continual cycle of poor food choices because we are too tired to prepare and plan ahead. Over time this will affect long term health.   

Forward planning is key! Take your own food so you don’t fall into the late night convenience store, drive through or vending machine trap. When you are preparing meals, make extra portions that can be chilled or frozen, ready for you to take to work or come back home to.

Eat regularly, with three balanced meals in each 24 hour period or two lighter meals with healthy snacks in between. Smaller snacks or a light meal during your breaks may be better than one big meal, especially at night. Eating too much can make you feel drowsy - the infamous food coma!

Avoid long periods without any food, letting yourself get to a point where you are starving by the time you take your break or finish your shift. You will be much more likely to overeat when you do this, as we tend to over compensate. Hunger also affects our judgement and decision making ability – we make poor decisions when we are hungry, and not necessarily just in relation to food!

It can be tempting to reach for that chocolate bar, bag of sweets or sugary energy drink when you feel you need a boost during your shift. However, these foods will only enhance energy levels for a short while, with a quick sharp peak in blood sugar levels, which can be difficult to bring under control. Foods that release energy slowly will be much more beneficial.

For example, a bowl of porridge or cereal, overnight oats, vegetable sticks or wholemeal pitta with hummus, rye crispbreads or apple slices topped with nut butter, a high fibre cereal bar, a handful of unsalted nuts with a piece of fruit or soup containing vegetables and lentils or beans. Incorporating healthy fats and foods high in protein or fibre to your meals, will also help you feel fuller for longer and keep cravings at bay. These could include lean meats, fish, cottage cheese, eggs, nuts and seeds, avocado, yogurt, baked beans, chickpeas, lentils, wholemeal bread, brown rice or pasta.

Aside from lack of sleep, dehydration is a major cause of fatigue and poor concentration. As well as making you feel rubbish, it will affect how you care for your patients. Ensure you have water or other low sugar drinks available and grab frequent sips throughout your shift. Many wards have set up ‘hydration stations’ for staff to keep personal drink bottles in a safe but accessible place.

Having hydrating foods during your breaks will also help, try soups, sugar free jelly, fruit (such as melon, cucumber, strawberries, pineapple or oranges). Avoid over reliance on caffeine to keep you awake and alert, aim to have your last caffeine fix at least four hours prior to your bedtime, so that you are ready for sleep at the right time.

Getting enough good quality sleep during the daytime can be really challenging, especially if you live with others or look after a family that are not following the same schedule as you. However, getting enough sleep after your shift is really important for your overall health and wellbeing. If you plan to go to sleep soon after you return home from your shift, have a light breakfast type meal to avoid hunger pangs waking you up too soon.

Avoid fried, very oily or heavily spiced foods too close to bedtime as these can cause indigestion, which will also disrupt your sleep. The temptation to pour a glass or two of your favourite tipple to help you relax and switch off after a demanding shift may be strong, but this can actually have the opposite effect and reduce the quality of your sleep.

Everyone is different, with varying schedules, commitments and activities outside of work. You have to find a meal pattern, and sleep pattern around your shift that works for you, your household and your lifestyle.

Whatever your situation, keep on track with your ‘Five a Night SHIFT’:

  • Stay hydrated
  • Have regular meals
  • Introduce healthy fats, high fibre, high protein
  • Forward planning
  • Turn to decaf!

To anyone wishing to make a change for the better – as they say in the theatre – ‘break a leg’! (Good luck!)”

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