Shift work often requires eating at night, a time when the stomach and digestive system normally rest. Shift workers are very susceptible to stomach and digestive problems as a result of irregular eating habits. 30-45% of shift workers report chronic digestive problems due to the type of food they eat during work and before bed. Eating a large meal, especially one that includes foods that is greasy, spicy, or high in protein can slow you down at work.
Eating right when your schedule is so late can be difficult. It is vital that you adjust your meal routine to your schedule. Here are some important nutritional tips to follow:
- Don’t skip meals
- Bring a healthy meal to work with you. Vending machine options 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 may be interrupted. Eat larger meals when you are more active and need more calories.
- Drink lots of water during your shift. This will help keep your energy level high and help prevent cravings.
- Choose foods high in fiber and lean protein. These foods will satisfy you longer. Foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates can give you a quick burst of energy, but they won’t sustain you.
Schedule 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 regular intervals. Be consistent when you are at any time.
Try to schedule at least one meal a day with your family.
Avoid foods and drinks that contain caffeine within four hours of bedtime. If you drink coffee, choose decaf.
Eating during the afternoon and evening requires special considerations. The daily rhythm of our digestive tract is not “set” for nocturnal digestion. However, this does not mean that you should stop eating when working these hours. No matter what hours you work, plan well-balanced meals for your shifts.
Protein: Your first meal after sleeping should contain protein. Heavier proteins should be used in moderation and consumed several hours before work or before bed. Heavy proteins take longer to digest, so it’s best to choose between lighter protein sources just before and during work. Avoid frying during food preparation. Below 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 night work
Breakfast (approximately 8-10 AM): Regardless of when you wake up, breakfast is important. Eat shortly after getting up. This will help stimulate your metabolism, signaling the beginning of your “day.” Suggestions: Proteins, whole grain breads or cereals with high fiber content, low-fat dairy products, fresh fruit.
Main meal (approximately 1 to 2 pm): light protein, some fat (preferably plant-based, 15 to 20 grams), complex carbohydrates such as vegetables, fruits, pasta or whole wheat bread, rice, potatoes. Caffeine is fine.
Meal break (7-8 PM): Choose foods that are easy to digest. Poultry, fish, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and high-five cereals are good choices. Reduce your intake of high-fat or spicy foods. Keep this meal light and small. Without caffeine.
Night work: follow the same suggestions as the afternoon and evening work, just change the meal times. Working at night requires eating foods that are lighter and easier to digest. Again, avoid fats and spicy foods while you work.
Breakfast (approximately 5 to 7 pm): This is the time for traditional “dinner” type meals if you plan to eat them. If you plan to go back to sleep before going to work, make this meal smaller and lighter. Eat protein, fat (preferably plant-based, 15-20 grams), complex carbohydrates, and low-fat dairy products.
Lunch break at work: Follow the suggestions for lunch break in the afternoon and evening. No caffeine for the second half of the shift.
Snack supplements (before or after work)
Fruits, vegetables with low-fat dip, high-fiber cereals, pretzels, granola bars, dried fruits, low-fat dairy, low-fat popcorn, nuts or seeds, high-fiber crackers
If you sleep shortly after work, keep bedtime snacks small and light. If you don’t sleep until later, the food may be heavier, 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. Lack of sleep can trigger food cravings.
Exercise increases alertness and will create better sleep during the day. If you have a break where you can do a few minutes of activity, take advantage of it! Avoid exercise just before going to sleep.