An irregular schedule combined with erratic meal times and unhealthy food choices from vending machines often means healthy eating takes a back seat to convenience.
Not having the time for healthy food choices is perhaps when they are needed the most. Not only can a healthy diet decrease the risks of some health conditions associated with shift work, including heart disease and high blood pressure, it can also help sustain energy levels – which is critical when working shifts.
The good news is that despite the obstacles, there are some easy strategies that can help you maintain healthy eating habits when working shifts.
It’s all in the timing
One of the single most important things you can do to in terms of healthy eating while working shifts is have regularly spaced meals and snacks. That means eating something every three to four hours during the hours that are spent awake. A typical day should always include three meals, and one or two snacks.
Regular meal timing provides a constant source of energy to the body and helps keep blood sugar levels stable, increases energy levels, decreases the risk of obesity, and means fewer food cravings. Appropriate meal timing keeps your metabolism revved and allows your body to use calories more efficiently.
Healthy snacks play an integral role in meal timing. They can help keep energy levels up, especially late at night when the body isn’t used to being awake and fatigue sets in. However, working late shifts often means snack options are limited to what is available in vending machines, which tend to be high in fat, sodium and sugar.
Your best bet is to bring healthy snacks from home, and keep a supply handy when energy levels are sagging. Some healthy snack ideas include low fat yogurt with fresh fruit, whole grain crackers with cheese, fresh veggies and hummus or a piece of whole grain toast with peanut butter.
Dehydration can leave you feeling tired, so it’s important to drink plenty of fluids during your shift. Opt for healthier choices such as water or low fat milk instead of the usual suspects of fruit juice and pop.
Its no surprise that many shift workers rely on caffeine to keep them alert. And while there’s no harm in having a couple of cups of coffee per day, the downside of caffeine is that it can cause sleep disturbances, which can be especially problematic for shift workers. If you drink coffee or tea through your shift, be sure to drink plenty of other fluids, including water, to help you stay hydrated and avoid caffeine for at least four hours before going to bed.
Bringing food from home is one of the best ways to make sure you have healthy choices available to you when you’re at work. Make some time on your days off to go grocery shopping - if the choices are available to you, you are more likely to eat them.
If you don’t have time during the week to prepare healthy meals and snacks for your shifts, do some batch cooking on the weekend and prepare enough food to last through the week. Try doubling a recipe for soup, stew or chili and portion it out into individual resealable containers for an easy grab and go meal later in the week.
If you are more likely to opt for convenience foods, a little know how can go a long way. Take a minute to look at labels and compare products to make sure you are getting the healthier choice. Some brands, such as PC Blue Menu, Compliments Balance or products with the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Health Check symbol take much of the guesswork out of healthy food choices, and provide healthy options for foods that are usually packed with calories, fat and sodium including pizza, frozen dinners and canned soup.
The bottom line is that while shift work can pose some tough challenges to healthy eating, making the extra effort to adopt a few healthy habits can pay off in the end. Not only will you feel better, you’re also bound to have more energy - just the thing you need when working shifts.
Mari-Len De Guzman is the former editor of Canadian Occupational Safety magazine and www.cos-mag.com.