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Our food medic, Tazneem's top tips for a healthy diet when working night shifts

Updated: Feb 21

Are you a night shift worker and struggle to know how to manage your diet? Does your weight yo-yo as a result of working night shifts? Do you struggle to know when to eat and what to eat? As a doctor, I can say this is a constant battle for me too- but fear not! Here, I have some of my top tips on how to improve your eating habits.

doctor at work

1) Stay hydrated and drink plenty- your body is composed of 55-75% water and your body can lose approximately 2.5l per day. It is really important that we keep on top of these losses. Aim to drink around 2-3l during your night shift which equates to about 8-10 glasses. Maintaining hydration is important for your brain function and concentration as well as keeping your kidneys and joints healthy. If you don’t fancy having water, then try drinking other healthy juices instead. I know this is easier said than done, I try to keep a water bottle near me all the time as a reminder to keep drinking!

Water at your desk to stay hydrated

2) Try to avoid excess caffeine because it is a diuretic which causes increased loss of fluid. Many people drink caffeine to allow them to stay awake (I know I do myself!) and if you choose to, then try to have it at the start of your shift and avoid at the end to ensure this does not disrupt your sleep.

Caffeine and shift work

3) Eat 3 regular meals in each 24 hours- spread out your 3 meals throughout the night shift. Try and eat your first meal just before you leave for your shift or within the first couple of hours of starting your shift for a boost of energy. The second meal should be a smaller meal to keep you going and should not be too heavy. Try and avoid eating between midnight and 6am if possible as this can lead to weight gain due to a slower metabolism. Eat your 3rd meal after finishing your shift and just before you are about to sleep.

4) Avoid foods high in fat and sugar and alternatively eat foods high in protein- fats and sugars will provide an initial burst of energy but it will not last the whole shift and can result in weight gain. Fats and sugars can also make you feel more bloated and result in digestive problems. Protein is broken down much slower and does not contribute to weight gain. For example, a healthy meal option for the start of the shift could be chicken with vegetables and pulses. An example of a midway meal could be a vegetable soup or a salad.

5) Before sleeping eat a small meal high in fibre and wholegrain- avoid a large meal as this can lead to poor sleep. Equally, you want something that will suppress the hunger so you don’t wake up in the middle of your sleep. Fibre and wholegrain fluids have a low glycaemic index which means it is broken down slowly by your body and therefore, will last longer. For example, a bowl of porridge and fruit is an ideal meal.

High fibre meal ideas

6) Snacking- opt for healthier high in protein snacks such as nuts and fruit to avoid weight gain and keep hunger at bay. It is very tempting to graze on cake and biscuits during the shift particularly when you are bored, however, if you can then avoid if possible!

7) Vitamin D- many of us are low on vitamin D at the best of times however, regular night shifts can reduce levels further. The best way to absorb vitamin D in the body is through the sun which can be difficult for night shift workers so, we can obtain vitamin D from foods such as fortified cereal and oily fish like mackerel and sardines. Supplements could also be incorporated into the diet and you can take up to 5000IU.

8) Ensure your diet also consists of other important vitamins such as C (found in fruits) and B. These vitamins are important for maintaining a good immune system to protect against infection. If necessary, you can add supplements to the diet.

9) Exercise! Try and exercise before your shift even if it is light exercise such as yoga because this will wake you up more and get your metabolism working more efficiently.

10) Sleep hygiene is extremely important- it is not natural for your body to sleep during the day. To make it easier for your body, avoid screens before going to sleep. Ensure the room is as dark as possible by drawing the curtains and you could even wear an eye mask. Try and get 7-8 hours of sleep during the day to ensure maximum rest time is achieved.

I hope these are some useful tips for you, to get you through those night shifts!

Tazneem is a junior doctor in the NHS and a qualified ANutr nutritionist. If you need advice on nutrition please contact us to book Tazneem.

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