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March 30, 2010

Beat the Clock: Tips for Eating Well While Working Shifts

If you or someone you love is like one of the thousands of people in the Winnipeg Health Region, working shifts is fact of life. It's a challenge to stay awake (and work) when your body is programmed to sleep. It's even more challenging when access to healthy food is limited, since cafeterias and other eating establishments are closed.

Shift work not only affects your appetite and when you're able eat, but it can also affect your waistline through weight gain or loss. Studies show that shift workers have higher rates - estimated between 30 and 45 per cent - of gastrointestinal problems like constipation, heartburn, diarrhea, stomach ulcers and indigestion. Not to mention that the type of food readily available in the wee hours tends to run along the high fat and high sugar route-potato chips, chocolate bars, pastries, soda pop and fried food - which can lead to an upset stomach.

Our body's internal clock (also known as circadian rhythm) is set so that we're programmed to sleep when it's dark - and that's when our bodies do the resting and restoring - and work and play when it's light.

"When your body is working, but should be resting, digestion slows down," says Ellisse Harasymek, Registered Dietitian, Golden West Centennial Lodge. "Working shift work upsets a normal eating schedule. You are often eating at a time when digestion is usually turned off."

For people working rotating shifts, which can be even harder on a person's body, it's even more important to keep the following tips in mind with respect to nutrition and shift work to fuel your body and help you feel better.

Eating Tips for Shift Workers

Follow Canada's Food Guide. A mix of grains, fruits and vegetables, proteins and fats in the recommended portions is a good guideline for healthy eating.

Eat your main meal just before your shift. Throughout your shift, eat lighter, smaller snacks.

Drink caffeine at the start of your shift and switch to decaffeinated beverages or water after that. Caffeine can stay in your body for up to four hours, so it's important to remember this when considering a cut-off time.

High protein foods - like peanut butter, chicken, lentils, beans, fish and eggs - can help you stay awake and alert. If you eat heavy proteins like eggs, pork, beef or high fat cheeses, it's a good idea to do those at the start of your day.

Drink fluids to keep hydrated, but stop near the end of your shift so your fluid intake won't wake you up for bathroom breaks when you're trying to sleep.

Larger meals can make you sleepy and affect how alert you are on the job, so choose lighter snacks instead. Consider the following: fresh fruit and vegetables (like carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, celery), a handful of almonds, a whole wheat pita with hummus, quick rolled oatmeal, salad with pre-cooked chicken, cheese and crackers, an apple and peanut butter or yogurt.

High fibre, low-fat choices are better food choices to make because they are gentler on your digestive system than highly spiced, salted and high-fat foods.

When your stomach growls, it seems tempting to hit the vending machine, but you're better off to avoid the high-fat, salty, sugary foods that are so readily available. Eating those items regularly increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, increases your blood pressure and affects your gastrointestinal system.

Foods like crackers, cereals, whole grain breads, fruits and vegetables are carbohydrates so they can make you sleepy. That makes them good eating choices before you go to bed, when it is recommended to eat something light so you don't go to bed hungry.

When preparing meals, cook extra and package single portions for healthy meals while on the job. Foods like chilli and soup freeze well and are easy to reheat at work.

Snack Attack

If you're going to hit the vending machine, go for a healthier choice, such as:

  • Pretzels

  • Nuts

  • Canned fruit

  • Cereal bars

  • Whole-grain crackers

  • Dried fruit

  • Yogurt

For more information on healthy eating and shiftwork, visit:

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