Many people regularly work nights. A healthy and varied diet is important for everyone, but even more for this particular group. If your working hours do not correspond with your body’s biological rhythm, you need to pay more attention to the composition of your meals. For example, it is not a good idea to eat heavy, fat-rich meals at night because your digestive system is not adapted to that kind of food at those hours. Doing so can lead to gastrointestinal complaints in the long term. You should also be careful about your consumption of coffee and nicotine during night shifts and it is not recommended to eat a large breakfast after returning home from work in the morning. As everyone is different and each body reacts differently, you would do well to seek out good advice on this.
10 tips for healthy eating when working nights
Not convinced? Changing your eating patterns when working night shifts can raise your level of alertness by as much as 25%. Moderate your consumption of coffee and snacks and be sure to ask your employer if nutritious food and drinks can be provided for the night shifts. Here are 10 tips to get through your night shift hale and hearty!
- Try to stick to the 3 meals-a-day schedule as closely as possible when working nights. That means: eat a warm meal in the evening before your night shift begins. During your night shift, have a meal (i.e. your lunch) and have a small breakfast in the morning. Sticking to a 3-meals-a-day schedule helps your body to ‘synchronise’ the rhythm of your biological clocks, despite working nights. This is because your body has certain ‘additional clocks’ which are not activated by light but when you consume food.
- A good rule of thumb: you don’t need to fill yourself up with caffeine and candy to get energy since good and healthy food options also positively influence your level of alertness. The golden rule is: ‘proteins are your best friends’. Proteins help you stay awake.
- Evening meal: tips 1 and 2 indicate that you should eat a protein-rich meal around 18:00 (this will depend on your personal preference and how hungry you are, but this meal should be taken around dinnertime). Legumes, soy, fish, poultry, shellfish, eggs, new cheese, skimmed milk, yoghurt, curd cheese and nuts are a few examples of healthy and protein-rich foods. Eat a tasty meal of chicken and peas, for example. Or a healthy salad with nuts and goat’s cheese.
- Eat protein-rich food: depending on when you ate dinner, you will probably get a little hungry again at around 1:00 during your night shift. Be prepared and also eat protein-rich food at this meal. You can of course also have healthy carbohydrates and healthy fats (but in moderation). Eat wholegrain bread with cheese or an egg, for example.
- Drink enough: also drink lots of water or tea when on your night shift.
- Snacks: many night workers tend to satisfy hunger pangs between meals with a sugary snack, bar of chocolate or a bag of chips. Of course, you know that is not healthy. But why? Your stomach is not adapted to digest foods rich in fat at night. Making it do so consumes a lot of energy and causes irritation. Regarding food and beverages rich in sugar: at night-time your body has less insulin, which means that your blood sugar level can rise dangerously over a longer period of time. This can lead to diabetes. So, do yourself a favour, and substitute the sugar and chips for nuts and vegetables, for example. Take note: there is also a lot of sugar in fruit!
- After your night shift: you probably feel like eating something in the morning after work. In that case, it is important not to eat too much as this could prevent you from sleeping well. Eat a small tub of yoghurt, a muesli roll, a piece of fruit or vegetable or drink a glass of warm milk.
- After you wake up: you will probably feel like something again. Opt for a somewhat smaller meal so that you will have a hearty appetite again in the evening. Eat soup, a salad or muesli, for example. You can occasionally treat yourself to a piece of cake if you feel like it. If you have a treat like this, eat it in the daytime as your body is then better able to digest it.
- Avoid caffeine 3 to 4 hours before sleeping. Caffeine causes you to sleep shorter and adversely affects the quality of your sleep. Remember that caffeine is contained in many products, including black and green tea and chocolate milk. There is no harm in a cup of coffee is at the start of the night shift.
- Don’t use alcohol as a nightcap. Though alcohol may help you to fall asleep, it makes it harder to sleep straight through until it’s time to wake up. This is because it causes you to need to pee more often and compromises the quality of your sleep.