Written by Aly Bouzek, MS, RDN
Edited and updated by Sandra Gentleman, RD
Shift Work: How to Eat Healthfully
Is it possible to eat healthfully while working the night shift? How does timing and what you eat play into shift work and your health? We’ll answer all of these questions and more, as we dive into shift work’s relationship to your sleep, your diet, and your health.
What is Shift Work?
Shift work (or the night shift, as we’ll reference in this article), refers to working outside of “daytime hours.” More specifically, if you work a shift sometime between 7:00 am and 6:00 pm, then you are working the night shift.
We have become progressively reliant on a 24/7 society. With this, comes a need for workers to cover ALL shifts.
A 2017 study with over 6,300 participants found that 10.4% worked a shift between 7:00 am and 6:00 pm (1). This total would portray that almost 15 million American workers work the night shift.
Some occupations with night shifts include:
- Health care
- Retail and sales
- Protective services (security guards, police officers, firefighters, ambulance, etc.)
Though some workers enjoy evening hour shifts, there are certain risks involved. These risks affect circadian rhythm, sleep, diet, and health. Let’s learn more below.
Risks of shift work are born from an upset between your circadian rhythm and your sleep and wake cycles.
Circadian rhythm is your body’s natural/internal clock, which follows a 24-hour cycle. You have multiple circadian rhythms, such a mental, behavioral, and physical, and they all follow this same 24-hour cycle.
As humans, we are not nocturnal animals. We are awake when it’s light, and we are asleep when it’s dark. Your body rebels when you disrupt the biological process of circadian rhythm because you are forcing it to sleep and wake against your body’s natural instincts.
Ultimately, you cannot train your body systems to switch their clocks (flipping day and night). Attempting to do so can cause sleep issues and health concerns.
Working the night shift can lead to a sleep disorder called shift work sleep disorder (SWSD). SWSD brings difficulties when trying to sleep or wake outside of your circadian rhythm.
Those with SWSD (10-40%) have significant troubles falling asleep when they want, as well as staying asleep. Missing a restful sleep causes you to be overtired the next day, and the same cycle continues over and over again.
This excessive sleepiness can lead to greater risks of:
- Accidents (work-related, driving home from your shift, etc.)
- Chronic fatigue
- Mood swings
- Performance impairment
- Ability to reason well
- Impaired cognition
Every shift worker does not suffer from SWSD; however, talk to your doctor if you believe your sleep may be negatively affected by shift work.
When we eat throughout the night, it confuses our digestive system. This is because we are not supposed to be digesting at night – we are supposed to be sleeping. In other words, at night our gut isn’t supposed to be working, it’s supposed to be resting.
So, what does late-night working look like to you? Are you in a profession that’s slow-paced most of your shift, or are you working in a go, go, go environment?
When we are tired and there isn’t much stimulation, such as working a slow-paced night shift, we tend to feel a sense of boredom. This boredom commonly brings along the desire to reach for coffee and foods that are ultra-processed, high in fat, high in sodium, and fast-digesting carbohydrates.
Eating these foods at night, or consuming big meals at night, negatively affects our digestive system and can increase sleepiness. Poor eating habits at night are also associated with an increased risk of:
- Gaining weight
- Heart disease
What you eat, when you eat, and why you eat are all important factors when considering your health and eating at night. Follow along for more information, or jump ahead to this expanded section below.
You are most at risk for health issues if you are working night shift long-term (over 10 years), and you are working a shift that is at least three hours between midnight and 5:00 am.
However, working the night shift can also have detrimental health effects after just the first five years. A 2017 meta-analysis with over 173,000 participants reported that your cardiovascular disease risk increases by 7.1% for every consecutive five years of shift work. (2)
Health risks associated with shift work include an increased risk of (3):
4 Key Strategies for Shift Work: How to Eat and Sleep
We just learned about the sleep, diet, and health risks of shift work. Now, let’s dive into four key strategies to improve your health.
When we say “fast,” we don’t mean not eating or drinking during your night shift. We mean to say that you shouldn’t have a big meal between midnight and 5:00 am. You don’t want to flip your day in terms of eating your biggest meal during your shift.
As we learned above, eating big meals during shift work can lead to health issues as your digestive system has to work against your internal clock.
Instead, eat your big meal before 9:00 pm. This will give your digestive system enough time to work before it is ready to rest. Be sure to drink lots of water to stay hydrated, and choose high-protein foods and snacks to keep you feeling satiated.
When you eat matters.
#2: Pack Your Own Food
Yep, we said it! Dig out your lunch box from the back of the pantry and dust it off.
When packing your own food, you want to focus on protein-rich foods like cottage cheese, yogurt, eggs, nuts and seeds, etc. Healthy fats like avocado, or veggies and dip are good options as they can help fill you up a bit without overdoing it.
Also, take note about what food is available in your workplace. Do you have vending machines? Are packaged foods readily available? Watch yourself around these foods as they tend to be ultra-processed, have simple sugars, and are high in salt and fat.
Choosing these kinds of foods can leave you feeling hungry soon after, and then you will likely head back to the vending machine for more fuel for your shift.
What you eat matters.
#3: Don’t Use Food to Stay Awake
Why are you reaching for food at work? Maybe you keep nodding off and you need something to keep you awake. Maybe you are bored and don’t realize that you actually aren’t hungry. You might use food as entertainment. Or, maybe you use food as an oral fixation.
These are all possibilities, but they can all also lead to a slippery slope. Which is what you don’t want in terms of your health.
Make sure you are checking in with yourself and ask why you are eating. Remember that your gut wants to rest at night, not digest food.
Instead of turning to food for an energy boost when you’re not physically hungry, try drinking some water, going for a walk around the parking lot/work space, or try a meditation break.
Why you eat matters.
#4: Sleep Hygiene
Sleep hygiene can be a great help when working the night shift. In essence, when you come home from your night shift, you should try to recreate the sense of nighttime for your body to relax and rest.
Tips that may help include turning off blue light devices. Instead of endlessly scrolling through your favorite social media platform before dozing off, pick up a book and read a chapter or two. Meditation and relaxation before going to sleep may also be helpful.
Using blackout curtains to darken the room, wearing an eye mask and/or ear plugs can also help your sleep hygiene. Use white noise to keep out unwanted sounds and keep your room at a cool temperature.
Napping might be helpful as well, but you should try to keep naps to 30 minutes or less. You don’t want to further confuse your circadian rhythm or sleep too long and wake up groggy and disoriented before heading to your shift.
Tips for Shift Work: How to Eat and Remain Balanced
We’ve compiled a few more tips to help you navigate sleep and how to eat healthfully during shift work.
- Find a rhythm: the day after your night shift is a good day to get to bed early (plan ahead that you’ll likely be fatigued before your next shift).
- Determine how much sleep YOU need. Some people need a tight nine hours, while others function best on 7 hours of sleep.
- Avoid drinking alcohol before going to bed. Alcohol consumption can lead to disruptions in your sleep and not feeling well-rested when it’s time for your shift.
- If the above sleep hygiene tips aren’t working for you, then you can talk to your doctor about melatonin supplements to promote sleep.
- If you find yourself exhausted after your shift, then try a quick nap before heading home to make sure that you arrive safely.
- Exercise: you may exercise when you get home from your night shift, before you go to bed. But this can rev up your systems when they need to be winding down and resting. Instead, try exercising before your night shift if possible.
- Eat a nutritious meal before your shift starts.
- Stay hydrated with water throughout the night.
- Keep a regular eating cycle as much as you can, and don’t have your big meal late at night. Remember, a big meal before 9:00 pm is the goal.
Wrap-up on Shift Work: How to Eat Healthfully
Sleeping and waking outside of our circadian rhythm can have health consequences. Fortunately, there are methods you can use to help your body systems stay on track.
When it comes to your digestive system and eating healthfully during shift work, don’t forget to pack nutritious snacks, eat a meal beforehand, and avoid any big meals between midnight and 5:00 am.
Focusing on why you are eating can be the most helpful when it comes to healthful eating at night. Tune in to what your body needs, and if it isn’t food, then don’t reach for the ultra-processed, high fat, high salt foods.
Shift work is necessary for our society. If we want businesses to be open at all hours, then workers are needed for every shift. If you are a shift worker, we thank you, and we hope you find this article helpful.