After years of shift work, I ultimately reached my tipping point. I started having mental breakdowns before and between nightshifts in anticipation of the shit-show that often followed. Like, ugly sobbing over the bathroom sink 10 minutes before I had to leave type of breakdowns.
People often think shift work is hard because you have to stay awake all night. But it's really the disruption it causes to your body and the rest of your life for days on after, including your eating habits, sleeping patterns, overall mood and mental health. I'll be the first to admit: I'm a terrible person after a nightshift, to everyone around me and to myself especially. One of the major things that helped me survive shift work and offset the negative after-effects was learning to eat properly.
Not only does eating healthy help provide the energy you need to get through a long shift, certain foods actually help improve your mood and fight symptoms of depression. Also, avoiding common culprits can help reduce digestive issues.
Those of you who do shift work understand the unique challenges when it comes to healthy eating. Your typical meal times are completely thrown off or you sacrifice a meal just so you can get more sleep. You're surrounded by treats that are impossible to avoid and even harder to stop once you've started. Loading up on refined sugar and caffeine (the very ingredients that worsen depression) is the norm. By the end of shift, you're STARVING, not thinking properly and reach for fast, unhealthy options. After catching a few Zzz's and maybe showering at home, finding the desire to cook can also be tough.
With some help from our awesome That Clean Life members, here are our top tips for eating healthy when working shifts.
1. Eat your "main meal" before your shift
This will help keep you fuelled for the next 12 hours. If you're working a night shift, try having your "main meal" before you leave, between 5-6 pm. Then have a small additional meal and snacks throughout the night. Eating a big meal overnight can also upset your stomach.
2. Have a small "breakfast" or snack after a night shift
It can be hard to sleep well after a night shift when you're too full or too hungry. If you're hungry, try having something small like toast, fruit, or a warm slice of Blueberry Banana Bread. If you're too full, consider cutting out one of your earlier snacks.
Blueberry Banana Bread - Add this recipe to your meal planner
3. Avoid fatty, fried, spicy or sugary foods
All these foods can make you feel sluggish and contribute to unwanted weight gain. They are even worse overnight when your digestive processes are slowed, causing heartburn, indigestion, gas and constipation.
4. Bring your own snacks
Snacks will be your lifesaver. The cafeteria, vending machines and 24-hr coffee shops typically carry foods that are high in carbs, fat and sugar. Look for protein-rich snacks to help keep you alert and focused.
Our favourite shift work snacks:
- Veggie sticks and hummus
- Roasted chickpeas
- Fruit and nut butter
- Homemade granola bars, protein cookies or energy balls (like our Paleo Granola or Coconut Brownie Bites)
- Hard-boiled eggs
- A smoothie with added protein (add nut butter, protein powder, oats, hemp seeds or chia seeds)
- Trail mix or mixed nuts (I always keep a stash in my bag)
5. Moderate your caffeine intake and drink plenty of water
1-2 cups can help you stay alert but try avoiding it later into the shift so you can get some sleep later! Too much caffeine is also linked to depression and can interfere with serotonin production (the "happiness" neurotransmitter).
Drinking lots of water can help you stay awake, prevent dehydration and constipation, and help you feel a bit fuller.
6. Make friends with your freezer and crockpot
We're not always in the mood to cook, especially when we're tired, stressed and short on time. Set the crockpot before your shift so you can come home to a ready-cooked meal. Get into the habit of batch cooking and freezing leftovers for these desperate times. Future you will be forever grateful to past you.
Crock-pot recipe ideas:
Do you struggle with eating healthy during shift work? What are your challenges and what do you do to make it easier?