Nutrition and Shift Work - How to Eat for your Hard Day’s Night Featured

Authors: Registered Dietitians

What foods do you eat when working a shift?

( It’s 11 pm – most of us in Calgary are either sleeping or getting ready for bed.  But for many, it is just the start of their shift.  About 25% of Canadians work outside the 7 am to 6 pm work period in many different kinds of work – industrial work, healthcare, hospitality (hotels, food service), manufacturing, transportation services, protective services (police, fire, ambulance) - and the list goes on.  

Being up late at night when the body thinks it should be sleeping creates stress for the body.  Research has found that shift work is associated with higher rates of:

  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure & type 2 diabetes
  • Digestive problems [indigestion, heartburn, constipation, diarrhea]
  • Problems with sleep patterns, fatigue and lower energy levels
  • Stress, depression
  • Challenges meeting parental responsibilities
  • Challenges in maintaining hobbies and leisure activities
  • Substance misuse

What nutritional challenges do shift workers face?

  • Reduced access to healthier foods.  There are often fewer foods for purchase at night as cafeterias are often closed, leaving shift workers to select vending machine-type snacks.
  • Dehydration.  When shift workers do not drink enough fluids at work, they may become dehydrated and feel fatigued.
  • High caffeine intake.  Many shift workers drink caffeinated beverages to help push through their tiredness.  The effects of caffeine may last up to 8 hours – making falling and staying asleep after work difficult. 

What foods should shift workers avoid?

  • Sugary, nutrient-poor foods, like chocolate, or soft drinks.  These may lead to low energy levels.
  • Fatty, fried or spicy foods like traditional fast foods and spicy chili.  These foods may lead to heartburn, indigestion, and may make you feel more tired.
  • Caffeinated drinks and foods.  Limit caffeine intake to 400 mg caffeine/day, which is ~ 3 cups of brewed coffee.  For women of  childbearing age, the maximum daily caffeine intake is no more than 300 mg/day, or just over 2 cups of brewed coffee.
  • Caffeine-containing drinks and foods within 6 – 8 hours of expected sleep.  Limiting caffeine in this way may help limit the impact of caffeine on sleep.  
  • Energy drinks.  Not only do energy drinks contain caffeine, they are high in sugar, and are most often sold in larger portion sizes, resulting in high caffeine and sugar intake.  
  • Alcohol after work.  Alcohol may make you feel relaxed but can reduce the quality of your sleep. 

1) Time your meals carefully - eat your “main meal” before going to work.

2) Pack your own nutritious foods - so as to not be limited to vending machines.  Plan to eat a smaller meal/snack, rather than a larger meal (which can lead to digestive problems and can leave you feeling sleepy).

3) Eat balanced mini-meals - to help you stay awake and alert.  Try mini-meals balanced with vegetables, fruit, whole grains, low fat dairy products and lean proteins: 

  • Hummus with whole grain pita wedges
  • Veggies (carrots, sugar snap peas, cucumber) & lower-fat dip
  • Cottage cheese with fruit
  • Hard-boiled egg with whole-grain crackers
  • Oatmeal & warm milk
  • Broth-based soup
  • Soy nuts and dried fruits
  • Salad greens, cherry tomatoes, cubed cheese, chick peas topped with a vinaigrette
  • Low fat yogurt with a small handful of nuts
  • Wheat berry salad 

4) Hydrate with water or caffeine-free beverages:

  • Water
  • Caffeine-free coffee and/or tea
  • Low fat milk
  • Broth-based soup
  • Lower sodium 100% vegetable juices
  • 100% fruit juices, but be aware of the quantity as calories can add up quickly

5) After your shift, prepare your body for sleep - enjoy a light snack of carbohydrate rich foods (whole grain cereal, toast, muffin), which often lead to feeling sleepy and can help you not wake up because you are hungry.   If you are not hungry before bed, try cutting out a snack during your shift.

6) Be physically active each day - but avoid activity one hour before bed.

7) Talk to your workplace - about having healthier choices available throughout your shift.

Shift work is hard on the body.  Ultimately, you need to pay attention to what nutritional strategy helps you get through your shift while maintaining your overall health.


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