Many occupations require people to carry out shift work. You may work in a hospital, police or ambulance service, transport industry or a factory.

Balancing work, leisure and family life when you are not a shift worker can be difficult enough. If you add shift work into the mix as well it can be difficult to get the balance right.

Shift workers often struggle to maintain healthy eating habits and it’s not surprising, given that all our body functions, including digesting food, are geared to be active during the daylight hours and to rest at night.

Having to work at times when your body is designed to be resting is not easy, and the body clock never permanently changes to accommodate a different sleep/wake cycle, even in long-term shift workers.

Shift workers are also prone to certain health problems because of the hours they work. Shift work alters or works against your normal body clock, affecting digestion, the body’s metabolic rate, and other processes.

Some studies have found that shift workers suffer significantly more stomach upsets, ulcers, constipation and indigestion than their day-work colleagues.

Unusual patterns of sleeping and eating disrupt digestion, which follows a certain 24-hour pattern. Inadequate consumption of fluids and fibre also contribute to constipation.

Weight gain can also be a problem for shift workers, who may not make the best food choices. A shift worker may be more likely to choose higher fat foods because of time constraints with shopping, food preparation, or simply the fact they they often eat alone. Regular exercise may also be difficult to accommodate in the shift worker’s lifestyle.

Stabilising body rhythms and providing the body consistent time cues is essential to well being. Good management of the diet is a vital aspect of this.

The starting point for good eating strategies is to ensure that you eat a range of foods from each of the four food groups. This is as true for day workers as it is for shift workers. Other important points for shift workers include:

  • Eat light meals during the night because they are easier to digest. Choose foods based on rice, pasta, wholegrain bread and cereals as these foods provide long lasting energy. Fruit and vegetables, skinless chicken, fish, eggs and tofu also make good choices.
  • Avoid meals with a high fat content as they take longer to digest and can make you feel drowsy. High fat foods include fried foods, pies, sausage rolls, potato and corn chips, high fat pizza, fatty meats and chocolate.
  • Avoid foods that can upset your stomach such as chocolate, peppermint, citrus juices, tomato juice, garlic, onions, and peppers.
  • Keep to a regular eating schedule – your stomach will thank you for it.
  • Try to eat one meal a day with family members or colleagues.

Knowing how to time your meals can be tricky for shift workers. Try having two meals at the “normal” regular times (breakfast and early evening), and a light meal in the middle of the night shift. Consider having the largest meal of the day after the day sleep. The effects of a meal may be to decrease alertness in the second part of the night shift, so it is better to eat before you become fatigued; it is recommended that you take a meal at or before 1.00am.

What should you eat after your day sleep and before you start a nightshift? This time should equate to your main meal – including things like potato, rice, pasta, 2-3 servings of vegetables, some lean meat, chicken or fish or a vegetarian alternative, and some fruit.

What about meal breaks at work while working the night shift? Choose lighter type options such as soup and bread or toast; sandwiches (could be toasted); pasta or rice or savoury potato with egg, low fat cheese or fish; baked potatoes; spaghetti or baked beans; cheese on toast; fruit; low fat dairy products.

When you come home after your night shift you could consider the following choices before your day sleep – wholegrain cereals, fruit, yoghurt and milk; or wholegrain toast with spreads and some fruit. Try not to drink too much fluid at this time as it can interfere with sleep patterns.

Don’t forget – a shift worker just like anyone needs to be well organised with their meals. Ensure you have the right foods in the house so you can take healthy options to work. There are psychological benefits to bring tasty healthy options to work – it helps you to enjoy your dinner break more and this can help to get you through the shift. Try taking your own nice crockery and cutlery to work to help “normalise” your meal.

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Fiona Boyle is a registered dietitian and nutritionist. She runs a private practice and gives nutrition advice to individuals and families to help meet their health needs and personal goals.

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