The shift worker’s guide to healthy eating

Around 16% of all employed Australians – that’s 1.4 million people – do shift work. If you’re one of those 1.4 million, you probably know this can cause plenty of disruption in your day-to-day life. For night workers in particular, the effect of shift work on your body’s internal clock can mean you may be at a higher risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, motor vehicle accidents and mood swings. This might not seem ideal, but if you’re proactive about your self-care, you can continue to burn the midnight oil in the job, while keeping your body and mental health in check.

We all know that it’s important for shift workers to pay particular attention to their health. Here are some ways shift workers can guide themselves towards healthy eating.

Be prepared

You probably feel like your life is upside down when compared to the lives of many of your family members and friends. For a start, your regular meal times are usually thrown out the window, and you might just feel like you have to grab a snack or some takeaway when you’re able to. However, with a little preparation and planning, you can edge yourself towards better choices.

We’ve heard it a million times, right? Australian healthy eating guidelines suggest enjoying a wide variety of foods from the five groups (vegetables and legumes, fruits, grains, lean meats and dairy) every day, but it’s not always that easy to grab something on the go. There are a few things you can try to make healthy snacking and meals easier.

  • Spend time meal prepping and planning meals and snacks in advance to make sure you’re ticking off these food groups every day.
  • Write down your meal plan and keep it with you while shopping.
  • Buy some food bags and containers to help you prepare and portion healthy, on-the-go snacks in advance.
  • Take advantage of health meal delivery services which allow you to get fresh ingredients or ready-made meals delivered to your door for convenience.

Eat small, frequent meals

It might be a bit “icky” to talk about, but most shift workers have at one time or another known the discomfort of an upset tummy on a long shift. You’re not just imagining it; the risk of gastrointestinal problems such as constipation and stomach discomfort is increased for shift workers. 

Avoid large meals during the night, which can add to these problems and make you feel sleepy. Instead, opt for smaller meals and healthy snacks during your shift.

Healthy snacking ideas include:

  • yoghurt
  • banana smoothie
  • popcorn
  • muesli bar
  • trail mix
  • low fat muffin
  • sushi
  • wholemeal bread with low fat cheese
  • fruit
  • hard-boiled egg

Limit caffeine and energy drinks 

It’s tempting to prop yourself up with coffee, chocolate or an energy drink during shift work, however this sort of short-term pick-me-up could come at a real health and wellness cost.

Regularly drinking four cups of coffee per day (for example) could lead to:

  • cardiovascular problems
  • heartburn
  • ulcers
  • difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
  • anxiety
  • depression

Instead, try out alternatives such as green tea, which is often considered a heathier alternative as it has a lower caffeine count of between 24 and 45 milligrams per serving, compared with coffee, which has up to 140 milligrams of caffeine per serving. If you don’t like green tea, then try something with a bit of a spice punch, such as milky chai tea; or even ginger, mint or liquorice.

Drinking iced water can also help, as does doing brisk exercise and getting your heart rate up – it’s harder to fall asleep after your heart rate has increased. Even taking a few deep breaths can help to wake you up, the natural way.

Substitute better foods

Sometimes we’re so tired and hungry that we just reach for the easiest option when we’re too exhausted to think – even though we know it’s not the best or healthiest choice.

If you find yourself falling into this sort of trap, then you need to make it easy for yourself to change this habit – and the way to do that is with planning. Make a list of healthier substitutes for your snacking vices, and you’re a step closer to change:

Easy optionHealthier option
Hot chipsBaked sweet potato or air popped popcorn 
Potato chipsBaked veggie chips or wholegrain crackers 
Chocolate barHomemade muesli bar or bliss ball 
Fried chicken Air friend chicken in 1 tbsp. panko crumbs 
Deep fried food Baked, grilled or pan-fried food 
LolliesFresh strawberries and yoghurt 

Carry a water bottle 

Water is an essential element to harness in your pursuit of ongoing health, as it carries nutrients and oxygen around the body. Put simply, you need to keep hydrated to feel good, stay energised and remain alert.

More than half of our body is made of water, and we lose around three litres a day. Sticking to the well-known recommended water intake is an easy health win. Just to remind you, the recommended intake of fluid is eight cups a day for women and ten cups for men7, depending on your activity levels and the outside temperature. Of course, you’ll need to drink more if you’re running around in summer, than if you’re desk bound in the colder months. Use common sense.

Eat sleep-friendly foods

Did you know that there are some foods scientists have found to have sleep-beneficial properties? Getting enough quality sleep is an ongoing mission for shift workers. Make that mission a little easier by adding these sleep-friendly foods to your diet:

  • almonds
  • turkey
  • chamomile tea
  • fatty fish
  • white rice

Stay social 

Being social – including being social when we eat – is important for everyone, including shift workers. Just because you don’t work standard hours, it doesn’t mean you need to miss out on social activities.  Making an effort to eat some meals with your family, friends and co-workers can help you feel connected to your community.

Having a feeling of connection can do wonders for your overall health, with research suggesting strong social connection boosts longevity by 50%, strengthens our immune system and reduces rates of anxiety and depression.

As you can see, there are a number of ways to overcome the risks and disruptions of shift work and can help you live a healthy and fulfilled life. Taking the time to prepare and plan for healthier eating means you’re taking active steps to protect your health – giving you peace of mind and transforming your experience as a shift worker.

Shift workers are some of the hardest working Australians and they deserve to go to work knowing that their family will be protected in the event of unforeseen circumstances. Life insurance can give you added peace of mind.

Learn more about how Real Life Insurance could help you today.

shift workers guide to healthy eating infrographic