Nutrition tips for night-shift workers

Our paramedics, police, firefighters and other first responders often work shift work while they protect, defend and care for our communities.  This can result in skipped meals, over-snacking or “convenience” food which all impact on mental health, physical health and general wellbeing.

Our bodies are designed to be awake and eat through the day and to sleep and fast through the night; however, this is not really achievable when you’re a first responder working shift.

Night-shift workers often report experiencing digestive problems, appetite changes, difficulty managing weight and poor energy levels. Eating the right foods at the right time can help make shift-work easier by providing your body with energy when you need it and helping you to sleep better and reduce fatigue.

While healthy eating may seem less achievable to those working shift work, here are some tips to get through the night-shift:

When you wake up – Have a nutritious meal including some vegetables, low GI carbohydrates (such as pasta, rice, potato, wholegrain bread), and lean protein – this will help to provide your body with nutrients needed for good health plus lasting energy.

During your shift – Stick to protein-based snacks and small meals. Avoid heavy, greasy or carbohydrate-heavy meals as these can leave you feeling sluggish and cause gastrointestinal upset; whereas protein-based foods can help to increase alertness during night-shift. This does not mean you can only drink protein shakes! Try keeping some healthy snacks on hand such as nuts, boiled eggs, Greek yoghurt, nut bars, tinned tuna, and roasted chickpeas.

Caffeine can also be used strategically to increase alertness during your shift – so yes, you can have coffee. However, be mindful of your tolerance, and timing. Over time you might find that you need more caffeine to experience the same boost in energy, keep an eye on this and limit yourself to about 3 cups of coffee to avoid other negative health outcomes. Avoid using caffeine (including coffee, tea, cola and chocolate) in the second half of your shift (or at least 4-6 hours before going to bed) so as not to impact your sleep.

After your shift and before sleeping – You might need a snack or small meal before bed to avoid waking from hunger.

Of course, there is no one size fits all approach when it comes diet. Some roles are more physically demanding than others, and everyone’s’ nutritional needs are unique. The above tips are a good place to start if you’re trying to improve your diet, and for individual advice you should see an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

Clare is a qualified dietitian and fitness instructor and is currently studying her Masters of Public Health at James Cook University.