HEALTHY EATING AS A SHIFT WORKER – IS IT POSSIBLE?
Are your work shifts negatively affecting your eating habits?
Do you find it easy or difficult to eat and drink healthy during shift work? Some of you may be thinking yes and others no. A recent study found that shift work affects many areas of workers’ lives, with an impact on eating behaviour being a key factor1. Many staff relied upon convenience and takeaway foods as they lacked time and energy to prepare meals or they found there was a lack of healthy options within the workplace canteen1. Other staff found that shift work had a positive effect on what they ate, as they had more control over their eating behaviours due to limited food access and restricted eating times1. Similarly, some felt that their shift work made them become more organised, as they had to prepare what they considered healthy meals in advance1.
The problem, however, is that relying heavily on convenience meals high in fat, salt and/or sugar, can increase the risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers in the future. This can be detrimental for employers as having an unhealthy workforce can cost the economy over £60 billion every year2. It is, therefore, in the employer’s interest to have healthy staff as they are less likely to need time off work and be more productive2. It is important that both employers and shift workers understand the importance of healthy eating and drinking and recognise ways in which this can be achieved during shift work.
Before your shift
As a shift worker, it is important to ensure a healthy diet despite strange working patterns. It may be useful on your days off to prepare some meals/snacks for your upcoming work shifts, whether you bring them into work or eat them at home after your shift finishes. For example, porridge with fruit and nuts, whole wheat pasta dishes or noodles with stir-fry vegetables. Setting aside a small amount of time to prepare healthy meals will make things easier and keep you healthier in the long run.
During your shift
Depending on your workplace, there may be canteen but they may not offer a large selection of healthy meals. If you don’t have time to prepare something in advance, why not bring the ingredients into work with you, such as a sandwich, soup, or jacket potato, provided there are facilities to heat up these foods. If you are purchasing your food in the workplace, try to avoid having heavy meals as this may make you feel drowsy.
Even if you have prepared healthy meals in advance, you may still find yourself feeling hungry or tired and need a snack to keep you going. On these occasions it can be tempting to snack on foods high in sugar to help you stay awake, but it is important to limit your consumption of these types of food. Try to choose snacks that are fibre-rich as these will help keep you fuller for longer as they release energy more slowly3. For example, vegetable sticks, unsalted nuts, rye crispbread, low sugar cereal bars or wholemeal pitta with hummus. These snacks are also quick to grab as sometimes break times don’t go as planned and you don’t have much time.
Don’t forget to keep hydrated during your shift, ideally 6-8 glasses of water each day3. Why not keep a re-usable water bottle with you as a reminder of how much you still need to drink? During night shifts, in particular, it can be tempting to grab a coffee or energy drink to help you stay alert. However, be careful about having too much caffeine as it can also increase anxiety, may lead to heart problems over time and stop you from sleeping after your shift due to the stimulant effect3. In a 24 hour period, the recommended limit of caffeine for adults is 400mg, with on average 100mg being within a standard coffee3. So as you are coming towards the last 4 hours of your shift, try not to consume any caffeine so that you can sleep after your shift.
After your shift
If you have worked a long day shift and won’t be eating your dinner until late, it is best to keep meals light as those high in fat and calories may cause indigestion and it is also best to avoid drinking alcohol before bed, as these factors can disturb your sleep3. This in turn may mean that you don’t feel as refreshed the next day and snack on junk foods.
If you have worked a night shift, it can be very difficult to get good quality sleep during the daytime. It’s important that you try to eat a light breakfast before going to sleep, as this will help stop you waking up from hunger3. It is also a good idea to try to relax by getting into a bedtime routine, such as having a warm shower and avoiding screen time to help you get to sleep3.
What can workplaces do?
One way of helping shift workers eat healthy is, where possible, to provide healthy meals and snacks on site so that staff can grab a nutritious meal to keep them going through long shifts where possible. For those workplaces that do not have a canteen, many should have facilities to prepare and heat up food. A recent study with NHS junior doctors found that access to healthy food and drink was ranked as 4th in helping improve their wellbeing, after improvements in general working life4. A month long pilot study offered staff the opportunity to buy a voucher for a hot meal which would then be delivered via the hospital porters4. This was a success and shows how meals can be provided to staff working night shifts4.
Eating healthy as a shift worker is possible, however being as organised as possible in meal preparation is key to being successful. This may not always be possible, so don’t be hard on yourself if you have to eat the odd convenience meal or takeaway. It only becomes a problem for your long term health when these foods are being consumed at every meal. Alongside this, it is also important that employers to try to prioritise the nutritional wellbeing of all the workforce. This may take effect in different ways, for example, by providing healthy food options, whether in a vending machine or in the canteen if available. The logistics, however, of providing freshly prepared hot food to night staff may prove difficult in the long term. It is, therefore, important that both employees and employers recognise the importance and implement healthy eating during shift work and make necessary changes where required.
1Fiona M Nea, L Kirsty Pourshahidi, John M Kearney, M Barbara E Livingstone, Carolina Bassul, Clare A Corish, A qualitative exploration of the shift work experience: the perceived effect on eating habits, lifestyle behaviours and psychosocial wellbeing, Journal of Public Health, Volume 40, Issue 4, December 2018, Pages e482-e492
2Public Health Matters. 5 ways businesses can help employees eat well and move more. https://ukhsa.blog.gov.uk/2018/03/07/5-ways-businesses-can-help-employees-eat-well-and-move-more/ (Accessed 4.9.2020)
3British Nutrition Foundation. Healthy diet and lifestyle tips for shift workers. (Accessed 4.9.2020)
4NHS Employers. Improving night workers’ nutritional wellbeing. (Accessed 4.9.2020)