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Nutrition for shift workers

Research reports that shift workers are at greater risk of health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. With the recent news that shops in England can open for 24 hours once the lockdown is lifted, Salma S. Khan, Harley Street Nutritionist, advises shift workers on how to maintain a healthy diet and to support their bodies to better deal with the challenge of working outside the norm of 9 am to 6 pm and in some cases throughout the night.

Eat Little & Often: Consuming large meals and snacks is thought to not only put strain on the digestive system, but may even lower energy levels. On the other hand, eating healthy meals and snacks every 3 to 4 hours should supply your body with a steady release of energy, consequently keeping you more alert. Sticking to an eating schedule of consuming food every 3 to 4 hours whilst working shifts could help to enhance energy levels, contribute to improved mood and better hormonal balance, as well as supporting adrenal health which should help the body cope better with the challenge of shift work.

Top Tip: No matter what your working hours, eat breakfast within an hour of waking, and keep an eye on the time whilst at work – this should help guide you to know when to consume food again. Stick to the golden rule; space out 3 square meals and 3 to 5 small protein rich snacks to consume whilst awake. Make sure that each time you eat, you incorporate adequate protein with your meals and snacks to help keep you alert. If you’re going to end up consuming one or more of your meals whilst at work, don’t rely on the work canteen as they often don’t stock the healthiest of foods. Instead, pack a wholesome well-balanced meal to take into work and store in the office refrigerator. How about some grilled chicken or salmon with a portion of brown rice and baked vegetables or a chicken quinoa salad. If you’re packing breakfast, how about preparing an easy to digest smoothie containing protein powder that you could take into work.

Go Easy On Sugar: Shift workers tend to have irregular mealtime routines, and often consume food in a rush. Little time for food means eating on the go, and often choosing fast foods high in fat, carbohydrates and particularly sugar in an attempt to keep going. Too much sugar is now known to weaken the immune system as it is thought to deplete nutrient status, and affect digestive health by compromising the ratio of good to bad bacteria in the gut.

Top Tip: Avoid or limit sugar because excess sugar in the bloodstream results in rapid fluctuations in blood glucose which may challenge the body’s ability to handle the resulting peaks and troughs adequately. Too much sugar in the bloodstream gives rise to the release of the hormone insulin, which may result in glucose being stored as fat. A rapid rise in blood sugar usually follows with a sudden slump, causing a range of symptoms including fatigue, poor concentration, irritability and cravings for a sugar fix such as another biscuit or chocolate bar. Instead, if you feel like something sweet, opt instead for fresh fruit, dried fruit such as apricots and dates or 1-2 squares of dark chocolate. Remember to combine your sweet treats with a protein source to help prevent those sugar dips, so either consume these healthy sweet foods after a meal or with some walnuts or pumpkin seeds.

Prepare Healthy Snacks: Shift working patterns often change from day-to-day, so meal times and hunger pangs may be all over the place. With no fixed routine set in place for eating, it’s important to be organized. So if you know that you’ll be starting work after lunch and be working throughout half the night, make sure you eat a good lunch prior to starting work. In addition, pack yourself a healthy dinner and some healthy snacks instead of drowning yourself in caffeinated beverages. Caffeinated beverages such as coffee and tea are commonly consumed as snacks by shift workers in excess, however, it’s important to limit or avoid these stimulants. Much like the consumption of excess sugar, the over-consumption of caffeinated beverages are also thought to disturb blood glucose balance, and consequently, disrupt factors such as energy levels.

Top Tip: Try these protein rich healthy snack ideas; unsalted nuts & seeds with an apple or peach, dairy free coconut based yoghurt, miso soup, carrot sticks with hummus, oatcakes topped with almond butter, and snack bars rich in protein. When choosing snack bars, opt for those varieties with a protein to carbohydrate ratio of no more than 1:4 to ensure that you keep on an even keel.

Supplements: Supplementing with good quality supplements may be useful to help prepare the body for challenging times, and become more resilient to daily stress. Physical stress in shift workers includes being exhausted by lack of sleep, and by overworking. It’s a challenge for the body to be awake when it should be sleeping, and sleeping when it should be awake. During stressful periods or challenging times, the effects of stress may become even more pronounced. So helping to boost nutritional status via healthy eating and taking supplements may be an important stress fighting tool.

Top Tip: Supplementing correctly with the advice of a nutritional practitioner could help us cope better during challenging situations. Working shifts can be extremely stressful, and it is during such trying times that certain nutrients are thought to be rapidly depleted in the body. Nutrients that are particularly affected by stress include; Vitamin C, the B-Complex group of vitamins, Zinc, Magnesium and Calcium.

Salma S. Khan
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