Think long hours, a lack of sleep and heading to and from work while most others are snuggled up in bed. From emergency services to hospitality and retail, many industries require working in shifts outside the standard 9 to 5 work day. While this can disrupt a person’s social and family life, few may be aware of the health implications.
Shift workers are known to have an increased risk of chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and gastrointestinal conditions.Neil-Sztramko SE, Pahwa M, Demers PA, Gotay CC. Health-related interventions among night shift workers: a crtitical review of the literature. Scandinavian Journal of Work Environment and Health. 2014;40(6):543-556. While there are many reasons for this, one common risk factor is poor diet. Recent studies have found that shift workers are likely to have unbalanced diets and irregular eating patterns such as skipping meals.Fukumara T, Yoshita K, Tabata M. Associations among physical condition, life hour, and dietary intake male Japanese shift workers: physical condition and lifestyle survey of male Japanese shift workers. Sangyo Eiseigaku Zasshi. 2015;57:286-296.Heimo K, Puttonen S, Viitasalo K, Harma M, Peltonen M, Lindstrom J. Food and nutrient intake among shift workers with different shift systems. Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 2015;72:513-520. Their intake of fat is often higher than regular workers, while their vegetable intake may be lower. Interestingly, a longitudinal study found that the longer people had been working shifts, the higher their energy intake.Knutson A, Andersson H, Berglund U. Serum lipoproteins in day and shift workers: A prospective study. British Journal of Industrial Medicine. 1990;47:132-134.
The reasons for these altered eating patterns among shift workers are varied. They may be environmental, social, behavioural or emotional. Firstly, the irregular sleeping patterns of shift workers may play a strong role. When the circadian rhythm is disturbed, it can affect many physiological processes including hunger and digestion. Secondly, when it comes to preparing healthy meals, some find it difficult due to limited downtime between shifts. Often it is easier to buy packaged meals and snacks or get a takeaway. Considering the discounts given to emergency workers at some fast food chains, it’s easy to see how a drive-through burger seems like the best option after a long day.
Most eating done on shift is driven by one’s schedule, rather than hunger.
For those that do manage to find time to prepare healthy food, it may go untouched due to lack of allocated meal times. This can lead to the consumption of sweet food and drinks as a strategy for coping with fatigue. In most cases, unfortunately, most eating/snacking done on shift is driven by one’s schedule, rather than hunger. Now comes the biggest factor affecting food choices, even for those of us who enjoy standard working hours: emotion. We’ve all had the feeling of needing chocolate or a glass of wine after a long, hard day. Most of us can recognise when we need comfort food and when we don’t. However, if you’re doing five straight night shifts, that need can easily become the norm. This is often compounded by indulgence on those precious days off, which only exacerbates the problem.
Now, if you’re a shift worker struggling to eat healthily – don’t panic. Consider these strategies to help bring some dietary normality into your life:
1. Meal prep.
Pull out the Tupperware and make like the gym junkies – it’s time to get organised! On your days off, cook up big batches of your favourite meals to freeze and use throughout the week. For snacks, make up little bags of nuts, wholegrain crackers and dried fruit. Not only does this give you something quick to grab when you’re running out the door, but also allows you to practice portion control. Even if you don’t get a chance to eat the food at work, at least you’ll have it there when the shift ends – which may reduce the allure of the golden arches!
2. Choose the right foods.
When bringing food from home, go for a mix of protein, carbohydrates and good fats to ensure you’re getting a balance. The same goes for purchasing a meal. Look for the best option and avoid foods that are fried or high in refined sugar. For snacking, choose low GI options that give a slow release of energy. Think nuts, low-fat yoghurt or a boiled egg. Avoid sugary drinks and snacks, as the initial burst of energy is short-lived. The resultant slump is what leads to that second red bull or chocolate bar!
3. Limit caffeine.
Not only will this dehydrate you throughout your shift, it could also affect your sleep – and this is one area where you don’t need more working against you!
4. Keep active.
While it’s difficult to fit exercise into your schedule, it may be just what you need in order to feel and perform better. Physical activity alleviates stress and provides an opportunity to unwind. Look for gyms that have opening hours that suit you or take advantage of your spare daylight hours and head outside for a run.
5. Go easy on yourself.
This is the most important tip for people in your position. While all occupations can be stressful, the inconsistency of your hours only adds to it. So, while it’s important to find a routine that’s healthy and works for you, don’t panic if you slip up every now and then. If you have a particularly hard day at work and want to treat yourself with your favourite meal, go for it. Just try not to do this every day, as you will feel the effects. For the most part, look for other outlets of stress relief, but remember that you’re only human.
Whether your schedule means you’re an early bird, a night owl or a bit of both, being a shift worker doesn’t guarantee poor health. It simply means you have to work around a few more obstacles than the rest of us. However, the advice for healthy eating at work is the same for everyone, no matter their schedule. Be organised, be sensible about your food choices, and importantly, don’t be too hard on yourself!
References [ + ]
|1.||⇪||Neil-Sztramko SE, Pahwa M, Demers PA, Gotay CC. Health-related interventions among night shift workers: a crtitical review of the literature. Scandinavian Journal of Work Environment and Health. 2014;40(6):543-556.|
|2.||⇪||Fukumara T, Yoshita K, Tabata M. Associations among physical condition, life hour, and dietary intake male Japanese shift workers: physical condition and lifestyle survey of male Japanese shift workers. Sangyo Eiseigaku Zasshi. 2015;57:286-296.|
|3.||⇪||Heimo K, Puttonen S, Viitasalo K, Harma M, Peltonen M, Lindstrom J. Food and nutrient intake among shift workers with different shift systems. Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 2015;72:513-520.|
|4.||⇪||Knutson A, Andersson H, Berglund U. Serum lipoproteins in day and shift workers: A prospective study. British Journal of Industrial Medicine. 1990;47:132-134.|