If you work the night shift, you’re among the 15 million Americans heading to start your “workday” when others are heading home. Working at night goes against your body’s natural clock, making it harder to stick to a normal eating schedule. You may be tempted to turn to convenience or fast foods for meals to save time. But what your body really needs are healthy meals before, during and after your shift.
“Studies show that night shift workers with poor eating habits are at increased risk for weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, digestive issues and insomnia,” says Shawna Broida, RDN, a registered dietitian at Henry Ford Health. “By planning ahead, you can eat healthy foods to fuel your body while you work and to sleep well when your shift is done.”
Strategies For Eating Healthy On The Night Shift
No matter what time of day you work, it’s important to fuel your body with a balanced diet. Broida recommends these strategies to help you stay on track when working a night shift:
- Avoid sugary snacks: Break rooms and vending machines offer tempting sweet treats. While grabbing a cookie or candy bar may give you a boost, your energy will quickly dissolve into fatigue.
- Eat before work: Don’t wait until you start your night shift to eat a big meal. Instead, enjoy a balanced meal with your family at dinner. Choose a lean protein like chicken or fish, along with a healthy carbohydrate like a skin-on baked potato or brown rice. Add in plenty of fruits and vegetables to round out your meal and keep you full and energized as you work.
- Energize with healthy snacks: Fuel your body with healthy options, such as hummus and fresh vegetables, low-fat yogurt or cheese, fresh fruit, nuts, tuna and whole-grain crackers. Rather than eating a big meal during your shift, consider eating small portions of healthy snacks to keep you energized as you work. Just be sure to watch your overall calorie consumption.
- Finish strong: Don’t forget to eat a healthy breakfast after your shift. Avoid eating fried, spicy or processed foods, which can cause digestive problems and interfere with your sleep.
- Limit caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant that can help you stay awake, but it also interferes with sleep. Because it takes about 6 hours for caffeine to leave your system, limit how much caffeine you drink. Enjoy one or two cups of coffee or tea early in your shift so you can get the rest you need the next day.
- Plan ahead: Over a weekend or day off, prepare healthy meals to eat before or during your shift. Try making soup or casseroles packed with whole-grain pasta and vegetables to keep you full and satisfied throughout your shift. Double recipes and freeze individual portions that you can take for a mid-shift meal.
- Stay hydrated: Dehydration can make you feel tired. Aim to drink up to 64 ounces of water or decaffeinated, sugar-free beverages each day. Carry a water bottle with you to help you stay hydrated during a busy shift.
“Even with the best intentions, we all stray from healthy food options from time to time. If you’ve enjoyed pizza and burgers over the weekend, start fresh on Monday and get back to your healthy eating plan,” says Broida.
How Good Sleep Habits Can Support Your Healthy Night Shift Diet
If you’re working the night shift, you’re going against your natural sleep cycle. But switching to a daytime sleep schedule can be challenging and derail your healthy diet plans.
“You’ll start your night shift fatigued without adequate sleep. And when you’re tired, you’re more likely to crave carbohydrates and overeat, increasing your risk for weight gain,” says Broida. “Over time, poor sleep also increases risk for depression, diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease.”
Consider these sleep habits to get the shut-eye you need and stay on track with a healthy diet:
- Nap during your days off or before your shift begins.
- Power off your phone, television and computer at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
- Set up your sleep environment for success. Sleep in a cool, dark, quiet room.
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule by going to bed and waking at the same time each day.
- Take time to unwind and prepare yourself for sleep.
“Consistency is the key to managing your diet and overall health while working the night shift. Stick to a healthy meal plan. Make quality sleep a priority. With these steps, you’ll feel better, be more productive and better manage your nighttime work schedule.”
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Shawna Broida is a registered dietitian nutritionist who sees patients at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.