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Shift work and chaotic eating

What happens when we stop eating three meals a day?

Shift work has been linked to a myriad of health problems. Compared to individuals who work normal hours, shift workers may be at higher risk of a number of disorders such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, and depression. When you think about the adverse effects of working erratic hours, issues surrounding sleeping deprivation, or high stress levels typically spring to mind. Critical differences in diet, however, are often overlooked.

Irregular work hours impose irregular eating behaviours. As a consequence, shift workers, such as nurses or doctors, often lack structure in their dietary patterns. This eating style is known as ‘chaotic eating’. It refers to someone who eats at different times each day, with little attempt at meal planning. Whether it’s due to a hectic work schedule or you simply prefer to graze throughout the day, a lack of meal planning has been associated with an array of both physical and mental health conditions.

In the Western food system’s current state, choice is already overwhelming and it’s all too easy to make unhealthy decisions. This obesogenic environment, combined with a complete lack of restriction on meal-times or portion size, is a recipe for weight gain and obesity-related health consequences. In fact, a regular meal plan is one of the most successful interventions for weight loss and diabetes reduction, as a clear eating structure helps patients to control their intake.

But as well as potentially damaging physical health, chaotic eating is also likely to promote psychological difficulties. A lack of restriction is dangerous and scary. Humans are comforted by routine and structure. That’s what makes a three-meals-a-day pattern is typically a successful weight-loss mechanism; it acts as a structure to regulate our eating behaviours. With a societal shift away from family meals to ‘eating on the go’, the structure has broken down and been replaced it with a cycle of eternal snacking.

The lack of constraints!! that come with chaotic eating makes self-control very challenging. With no restriction imposed on when or what you eat, you go through the day happily accepting any opportunity to shove food down your throat. This, in turn, might lead people to feel out of control and exacerbate feelings of guilt and self- reproach. If you’re reading this as a grazer who manages to successfully control their intake than I’m impressed (and please tell me what your secret is!!), but for most, chaotic eating adds great confusion to their diets.

For me, my grazing tendencies began when I moved away from home for the first time. I stopped having set meals and started eating at random intervals throughout the day. In my experience, this eating style lends itself to a whole host of maladaptive eating behaviours.

Often, chaotic eaters will replace nutritious meals with ready-to-eat snacks, such as crisps, nuts or cake. With no meal plan, shift works may not have the opportunity to cook their own meals and instead employees will often grab an unhealthy ready meal or snack food. It can also alter your perception of time, making all foods acceptable to eat at any time of the day, allowing a couple of squares of chocolate at 9 am in the morning or a bowl of cereal at 9 pm, without recognising that it’s a rather strange time to be eating that food. As a consequence, there is a strong association between irregular meal patterns and weight gain.

But it’s not just the frequency with which we eat that is bad news chaotic eaters – it’s been shown that people consume smaller portions when following a set meal pattern. It’s easy to underestimate how much food you’re actually eating, when there’s no order or plan to your meals. I often wonder how all of the food I pick at throughout the day would look on a plate together. I think I’d be traumatized by what I see, although perhaps that could be the trigger that would shock me into following a perfect eating routine.

However changing your dietary habits can be harder than you think, especially when you’re working environment is incompatible with the classic three-meal a day pattern. It seems that health care professionals are so preoccupied with the welfare of others, that they disregard their own wellbeing. Making small dietary changes, such as meal prep or enforcing a stricter eating schedule will have a monumental effect on both psychological and physiological health. It’s so important not to neglect your own needs – just because you’re taking care of others, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take care of yourself.

Annie Zimmerman
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