I have had quite a few nutrition clients who do night shifts and/or 12 hour shifts, i.e. flight attendants, cops, emergency workers, nurses etc. and these type of people present their unique set of challenges when it comes to eating healthy and reaching their diet goals. It’s been very interesting and challenging for me to work with some of these people. Their work schedule often means they will do very long hours without getting much of a break so I have had to work around this while making their meal plans, and in the process I have learned a few hacks along the way.
Here are my top tips to help keep shift workers hitting their nutrition & body composition goals.
Try to eat your main meal an hour or so before going to work. This will help keep your energy steady for awhile & help reduce late night cravings and hunger. Then you can have smaller easier snacks and meals during your shift.
If you are really struggling for time, then just try to get some kind of protein in every 3-5 hours and you can push the other macros to meals when you have more time to eat. For example, in my meal plans I usually recommend eating two cups of veggies with most meals, but obviously eating 2 cups of veggies will take some time to chew through, so rather than struggling to eat your meal because it’s too big, just bring small bits of protein with some easy to eat good fats, maybe some cut up fruit and have that, for example, beef jerky and apple slices, nuts and meatballs, or chicken strips and a banana etc. Save the veggies for when you are at home, and maybe even add extras veggies & some veggie juices on days off.
Stop worrying too much about hitting the perfect number of meals each day, but instead start thinking in terms of the overall week. For example, if you're up a lot longer on one day out of the week, chances are you're not up as long on another day (it usually averages out). So in that case, just add an extra meal on your day you're up later and have 1 less meal on the day you're not up as long, and it should all balance out.
You also likely want to spread meals out every 4 hours or so vs every 2-3 hours (which I usually recommend in my meal plans) if you have an overnight shift. But try not to completely cut any meals out, instead combine meals if you can. Timing is not the most important thing, but making sure you get all the necessary macronutrients and micronutrients is the most important!
Shift workers are often very short on time and don’t get long lunch breaks etc., so bringing quick meals that don't have to be heated or refrigerated are a good option. Fruit in bite sized pieces, chicken and sweet potato in bite size pieces that are easy to eat, deli meats etc. Avoid salads and rice and things that take too long to eat. A spoon of peanutbutter here and there for good fats. Things like beef jerky, small meatballs, nuts & finger food type veggies like mini capsicum (green peppers) & mini cucumbers. Meals or snacks that you have to sit down & use utensils to eat with will often just get pushed aside for lack of time, so it’s better to have easy to eat finger food. Protein shakes and bars are an easy option too as you can get that down pretty fast and easy.
Staying hydrated is so important & drinking water will also help to beat the infamous shift worker midnight munchies. If needed, put a timer on every ½-1 hour to drink a glass of water.
Drinking a casein shake can help if you can't make a meal for longer periods. Casein is a slower digesting protein, and I often recommend adding some of your good fats for the day to the shake if you have to go for long stints with no food.
If you don’t get much sunlight you should definitely be supplementing your diet with vitamin D. It’s particularly important to for those who do graveyard shifts for a living. And why is this important? Well vitamin D is essential for preserving metabolism-revving muscle tissue and this plays a role in weight management and body composition, so taking a daily supplement makes a lot of sense if you don’t get much sun. Other good dietary sources: tuna, eggs and salmon & other fatty fish, liver.
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