On the Menu: On the night shift? Eat your way into a balanced diet
Alternative work patterns can lead to serious health risks, so here’s what you can do to resolve the problem
Bringing your own food that you prepared at home allows you to take control and reduces your reliance on canteen or cafeteria food. Photograph: Jason Henry/The New York Times
Working evenings, night shifts and rotating your work schedule can have a bad effect on your normal meal and exercise patterns. Research confirms that these disruptions can cause more digestive problems, fatigue and increase your risk of heart attack and stroke, according to dietitian Emily Mullen, a member of the weight management special interest group of the the Irish Nutrition & Dietetic Institute (INDI). Factsheets such as Healthy Eating and Shift Work are compiled by dietitians and available on indi.ie.
Public health and scientific research into food, health and disease is translated into practical guidance to enable people to eat well in an increasingly challenging environment.
The INDI factsheet emphasises the importance of food preparation for irregular hours. Bringing your own food that you prepared at home allows you to take control and reduces your reliance on canteen or cafeteria food. Making large batches of lasagne or shepherd’s pie when you have the time, dividing it into portions and then freezing it is a handy way of having a supply of prepared meals for work.
Dishes served cold
If you’re trying to lose weight, place your carbohydrates on a quarter of the plate, protein such as meat, eggs, fish, peas, beans, lentils or vegetarian alternatives on another quarter, and salad or vegetables on the remaining half.
Choosing smaller amounts of carbohydrates such as wholegrain, wholemeal, wholewheat pasta, rice, and bread provides a steady energy supply and a good source of fibre throughout the working day, regardless of the time you start and finish.
Avoid quick solutions such as pot noodles, packet soups and so on. These options tend to be high in salt and won’t provide much nutritional value. Chances are they won’t be very filling either.
To trigger you to eat the right thing, have visual cues to help you make the right choices. Always have a fruit bowl filled with a variety of appealing fresh fruits nearby. Aim for two portions each day. Have a selection of low-fat natural and fruit-flavoured yogurts in the fridge at work. Limit the availability of treat foods such as chocolate, biscuits and pastries. Have mini-size chocolate or muffin options available if necessary to encourage better portion control. Look for other less-sugary options for your break (see table).
Have small packs of protein-containing unsalted nuts, wasabi peas, mixed seeds and edamame beans at work as an occasional snack. Remember, nuts are a rich source of healthy fats and, therefore, are also high in calories. For successful weight management, you need to control your portions.
Don’t rely on vending machines or fast-food restaurants to buy your snacks. People on the same shift can also bring treats to the workplace. Agree a strategy to avoid the constant nibbling.
Avoid drinking too much coffee or caffeine-filled drinks during your shift. Although caffeine can help to keep you alert, an excessive amount, especially towards the end of your shift, can make you jittery and rob you of some precious sleep when you need it most.
There are no set or specific water requirements for adults. There is no evidence to support the commonly held belief that healthy individuals need to consume two litres of water a day. An easy way to gauge your hydration levels is to check your thirst and the colour of your urine throughout the day, except first thing after your main sleep. Urine will be concentrated then, and darker in colour. If your urine is pretty light in colour otherwise, you are probably well hydrated.
Take a vitamin D supplement. New guidelines recommend everyone should take five micrograms of vitamin D daily because we don’t get enough sunlight in Ireland. If you’re doing night or shift work, the chances are you are getting even less sunlight. You need to focus on including vitamin D fortified foods, eating one to two servings of oily fish each week or taking a supplement.
Avoid eating, or try to eat less, between midnight and 6am. Research has shown that it is important to stick as closely as possible to a normal day and night pattern of food intake. Try to eat your biggest meals at the beginning and end of the shift.
Eat meals away from your desk or work area if possible; people who eat at their desk are more likely to be overweight. Eat a small meal before you are due to finish work and go to sleep. This will help prevent disturbing your sleep later due to hunger. But avoid having a large heavy meal with more than 20 per cent of your daily calories within an hour or two of your main sleep time.
Shift work and eating
Circadian rhythms influence hunger and digestion, disrupting a normal consistent eating pattern.
Maintain a healthy lifestyle with exercise, regular meal times and good sleeping habits when you are not working shifts or nights. Have your blood cholesterol and blood pressure monitored regularly by your GP. Be good to yourself when you’re not working. For more factsheets from the INDI, popular articles and news archives, see indi.ie.
Paula Mee is a dietitian and a member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute. See paulamee.com; @paula_mee
Snack attack: give yourself a range of options 10 raspberries (10) 10 grapes (12) 1 slice mango (23) 2 mandarin oranges (30) 10 strawberries (32) 1 slice fresh pineapple (33) 2 plums (40) 1 apple (47) 1 slice melon (56) 1 large orange (59) 2 kiwi fruits (59) 1 pear (60) 1 banana (98) Fresh food options (kcals) 40g cottage cheese (32) 125g pot low-fat probiotic yoghurt (98) Mini bag cherries (58) Raw veg crudités + 50g guacamole (90) 60g hummus (112) Fruit smoothie 200-250ml (136) Reduced fat hummus with carrots, celery (156) Fruit topped with yoghurt and 25g muesli (245) Portable dry goods (kcals) 2 rice cakes (60) 2 oat cakes (90) 2 Ryvita (95) 6 almonds (80) 2 squares dark chocolate (70% cocoa) (90) 30g dried mango (100) 6 brazil nuts (123) 30g wasabi peas or soya beans (130)