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WAG's Ultimate Guide to Nutrition for Shift Workers

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Are you a shift worker? If so, you probably know the struggles of meal timing, hunger spikes (and falls!) and the energy dips that come with overnights, long shifts and an overall wonky schedule. Nutrition for shift workers can be tricky. Don’t worry, we’re here to help.

What is Shift Work?

“Shift work” refers to a schedule outside of the typical “9 to 5”. This includes nurses, doctors, emergency medical services workers, firefighters, pilots, flight attendants and airline personnel, industrial workers, those in call centers, and many, many more. These professions can involve 12 hour shifts, overnight shifts, shifts that are broken up or even working for 48 to 72 hours straight.

Not only do these professionals have careers that challenge them, but the schedule itself can also present some nutritional speed bumps outside of the “work day” or “work night”.

When it comes to overall health and nutrition, here are some key challenges that working in shifts can present.

  • Difficulty planning meals and snacks
  • Limited time to eat or drink during shifts
  • Easy access to breakroom snacks and calorically dense, foods with low nutritional value
  • Trouble navigating the transition from work days to days off
  • Disrupted sleep patterns

If you’ve never done shift work, think about it like a sort of jet lag that you might experience after international travel... but on a regular basis! If you are a shift worker or have been in the past, you know what we mean.

Let’s break down some of the ways this can impact your body before we dig into some nutritional tips and tricks for shift workers.

Shift Work and Hormones 

When you’re going to bed in the sunlight and staying awake at night, natural circadian rhythm is thrown off. Then, throw in the general lack of sleep seen during longer shifts and you’ve got yourself the recipe for some potentially unhappy hormones.

Sleep deprivation and disruption to the circadian rhythm can have an impact on two key hormones, melatonin and cortisol. Let’s look at them…

  • Melatonin is produced in your brain as a response to darkness. So when you are exposed to light at night or when you are sleeping when your brain would not typically produce melatonin, you might not produce as much.

  • Cortisol is a stress hormone and when working efficiently, it can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help to reduce inflammation and assist in forming new memories. Unfortunately, working in shifts can cause the body to produce too much cortisol, which can have negative impacts. Too much cortisol puts the bodies in a “fight or flight” state much of the time.

Hunger Hormones 

Many people who work shifts will find themselves constantly hungry, not satiated by the meals they’re eating and drawn to foods that are calorically dense, but provide very little nutritional value.

Lack of regular, restful sleep that often comes as a product of shift work impacts two more hormones: Ghrelin and Leptin.

  • Ghrelin is known as the “hunger hormone” because it stimulates our appetite and helps you to feel hungry. Think “stomach grumble ghrelin” and it will be easy to remember! Eating when hunger is non-existent isn’t fun or enjoyable, so you need some ghrelin in your body. Those who do shift work can sometimes produce too much ghrelin, which can lead to never feeling full or satiated and therefore, overeating.

  • Leptin is produced by fat cells and helps regulate fat storage, appetite and metabolism. When you are not getting enough sleep - quality or quantity - the body produces less leptin. Leptin helps you to feel full and with less of it you feel more hungry, more often.

Hormones play a really important role in your body. As we’ve mentioned, the sleep cycles and routines that often come along with shift work can have an impact on those hormones and throw them out of whack.

What Can You Do?

All of this information can sound really daunting and may be daunting. IF you’re a shift worker you may be thinking, “How can I beat this and continue to prioritize my health, nutrition and fitness goals!?”

As a shift worker, it can be challenging to maintain a schedule in ALL areas of life. If you let it, shift work can have control over sleep, schedule, body functioning and so much more.

We’re here to tell you, this doesn’t have to be the case.

There are some careers where working in shifts might be unavoidable and we want to support you in doing what you LOVE to do.

So, we’ve put together some tried and true tips to help you (or the people in your life who work shifts) to continue to prioritize your health and your goals. We are here to be the bearer of GOOD news and tell you that there are many things that you can be doing and focusing on to prioritize you and feel your best!

Our Nutrition Tips for Shift Workers

Plan Ahead

Prioritizing health and working towards specific fitness and nutrition goals can be hard. In fact, working towards any goal can be challenging! Every individual will face challenges on their way to their goals and as a shift worker, you likely will have additional ones, especially when it comes to nutrition. One of the best things you can do is to be prepared ahead of time with your own snacks and meals that fit within your nutrition plan! 

  • Pack protein which will help stabilize your blood sugar levels and give you a steady supply of energy during your shifts.
    • Examples: Greek yogurt, protein powder, jerky, protein bars, or hard-boiled eggs.
  • Incorporate high fiber and high volume foods. Bringing pre-cut fruits and veggies and pair them with lean protein to keep you feeling full and satiated. This will keep energy high and hunger under control throughout your shift.
    • Examples: baby carrots, mini peppers, cherry tomatoes, precooked or raw broccoli/cauliflower, celery, cucumber. Pair with an example from above!
  • Focus on balancing out your meals (when you can!). Aiming to have protein, carbs and fat in every meal and snack.
    • Examples: hard boiled eggs and fruit, a wrap with some deli meat, cheese and veggies, oatmeal and chia seeds or nut butter or some shredded chicken, rice, avocado and your favorite veggies.
  • Grab a smoothie! When you are in a pinch or short on time, smoothies can be a great option.
    • Some go-to smoothie ingredients are: frozen fruit, protein powder, Greek yogurt, chia seeds, nuts and spinach or kale!

** Pro tip: A strategy that some of our Working Against Gravity members utilize when they have a hard time actually sitting down for a meal is planning ahead and packing a “snack pack”. This involves a variety of quick and easy snack-type foods that are similar macros to a typical, balanced meal, but in easy to grab and eat snack form. You can pre-track your snack pack, graze on it throughout your shift and know that it will help you hit your nutritional goals if you finish it up! If there is any left at the end of your shift, weigh it out and subtract it from your macros/plan and add more fuel when you get home OR finish it up on your drive home.

Aim for a Regular Meal Schedule As Much As Possible.

Although shift work can be very disruptive to your schedule, you can still develop a regular meal schedule for work days and off days, too!

  • Adjust your schedule. During a typical day when you are sleeping at night, you might have meals at 7am, 10am, 1pm, 4pm, and 7pm. With shift work, just shift this schedule! If you wake up at 6pm and start work at 9pm you might aim for meals at: 7pm, 11pm, 3am and 7 or 8am prior to heading to bed. If you are able to follow this schedule on a regular basis, your body and hormones will likely adjust.

    **Pro tip for macro trackers: at WAG, we suggest our clients try “48-hour macros” on overnight shifts. This means combining two days of macros into a 48-hour period if you’re awake and asleep at times that make it tricky to eat in a normal 24-hour cycle. Double your macros for those two days and aim to finish them up within the 48-hour period without worrying about which day they fall on. For most people, using 25-35% of the next day’s macros during an overnight shift works best. This works well when you will have a really long day when you are awake, followed by a day where you are awake for a very short period of time.


  • Notice patterns. If there are times where you usually feel a bit off, nauseous or when eating is challenging, you can plan accordingly. Perhaps you get a good chunk of your macros in prior and use that time to focus on your water intake.

Make Hydration (and Especially Water!) a Priority

When you are working late night shifts or multiple days at a time, it can be easy to fall into the trap of consuming multiple caffeinated beverages, not drinking much water or a combination of both. Staying hydrated not only keeps you feeling better and more alert, but being mindful of how much caffeine you drink and when you drink it can also help improve your sleep.

  • Keep in mind that coffee, caffeinated teas and energy drinks are okay to have, but we recommend consuming them as you might on a “regular” day. If possible, limit caffeine to the first half of YOUR “day” (as in, the time you’re awake!) so it doesn’t impact sleep.

  • If necessary, set a timer on your phone, fitbit or smart watch to help remind you to drink water. Having a water bottle with a straw attachment can make it even easier to sip throughout the day!

  • If drinking during your shift is a challenge, find those opportunities in your day when you can prioritize your hydration. This could be aiming for a chunk first thing when you wake up, sipping on a bottle on your drive to work and drinking a bottle during your workout… as long as it isn’t shortly before bed! **Pro tip: leave an extra full water bottle in your car so you always have some with you!

  • If flavored seltzers or flavored water are your jam, those can be great options too. The important thing is that we are aiming to drink as much water as you would if you were awake on a typical schedule and day. Also, keep an eye on digestion and bloating. Lots of bubbles can bother some people’s stomachs!

Dial in Sleep Routine

Getting high quality and quantity zzz’s might take a bit more time and effort as a shift worker, but it can be done and there are many things that are within your control. When it comes to sleep some things that we have found to be helpful are:

  • If possible, don’t get a workout in and then try to go straight to bed. Even just an hour or so to eat and wind down after a workout before bed can help.

  • Have a bedtime routine, even if it is during the day. This might involve usual routines like brushing your teeth, taking a shower or washing your face, reading a book, journaling or a mindfulness/meditation activity. If you don’t currently have a routine prior to going to bed, this can be a great time to create one!

  • Make sure that your environment is optimal for sleep. For most people, this means keeping the room dark and cool. Black out shades, an eye mask and a fan are some easy ways to do this - especially if you’re trying to sleep during the day.

  • Block out any noise that might make it hard to fall asleep or wake you up from sleep. Complete silence through earplugs can work for some, while others might prefer a fan or a white noise machine.

  • If aiming for 8 straight hours of sleep doesn’t seem to be working for you, that is okay. If your schedule allows, sleeping for a few hours, having a few hours of wake time around the house and then going back to sleep is better than nothing.

Define Success in a Way That Works and Fits For YOU

Many of us (okay, pretty much all of us!) feel the need to be “perfect” with our nutrition on work days and off days. This often leads to falling into that “all or nothing” trap and can make us feel like we are not successful when things don’t go as planned.

At Working Against Gravity, we know that being perfect isn’t realistic and puts unnecessary pressure and stress on ourselves. We recommend:

  • Start with simple goals. If you have a hard time eating at all during your shift, perhaps your only goal is to eat at least one meal or snack and then build from there.

  • Let the times when things don’t go as planned roll off your back. Maybe you have a couple bites of the cookies that are in the breakroom. This happens sometimes, but it doesn’t mean that the rest of your day is a complete wash. Think about it like getting a flat tire. If you pull over with a flat, it doesn’t make sense to slice the other three, right? Get right back to your usual routine at that next meal or snack and finish the day strong!

  • Remind yourself that you don’t have to do everything at once. Pick ONE thing to start with (ex. meal planning, prioritizing sleep, dialing in water intake), repeat it until it is a habit and then build from there. If you focus on super small improvements each day, you will be amazed at how that can add up over the course of a month, a year and longer.

If you’re dying for a few more resources, make sure to check out this episode of the WAG Podcast with Michael and Adee Cazayoux. They’ll dig into even more tips and tricks.

When it comes down to it prioritizing your health and nutrition goals while being a shift worker can be challenging. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible and you don’t have to do it alone.

At Working Against Gravity, we have worked with hundreds of shift workers to help them navigate their unique challenges and find the best plan for them. Nutrition is not a “one size fits all” kind of thing and WAG coaches are here to help you or the shift worker in your life find what works best for YOU.

References:

  • Costello, Rebecca B et al. “The effectiveness of melatonin for promoting healthy sleep: a rapid evidence assessment of the literature.” Nutrition journal vol. 13 106. 7 Nov. 2014, doi:10.1186/1475-2891-13-106
  • Li, Jian et al. “Impact of shift work on the diurnal cortisol rhythm: a one-year longitudinal study in junior physicians.” Journal of occupational medicine and toxicology (London, England) vol. 13 23. 14 Aug. 2018, doi:10.1186/s12995-018-0204-y
  • Cibele Aparecida Crispim, Jim Waterhouse, Ana Raimunda Dâmaso, Ioná Zalcman Zimberg, Heloisa Guarita Padilha, Lila Missae Oyama, Sérgio Tufik, Marco Túlio de Mello, Hormonal appetite control is altered by shift work: a preliminary study, Metabolism, Volume 60, Issue 12, 2011, Pages 1726-1735, ISSN 0026-0495, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.metabol.2011.04.014. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S002604951100117X)

Join Team WAG

Love what you learned but still want more guidance and support? Hire a 1:1 coach who will get to know you, your lifestyle and your unique needs and create results that you can sustain long-term. If you're not quite ready to go all-in on hiring a coach, check out our Macro Calculation Cheat Sheet & 18 Tracking Tips and Tricks for macro counting!

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Posted by Nicole Kupfer
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