Given that nurses have to staff the nation’s health care system 24/7, many find themselves in an evening-shift nightmare when it comes to eating nutritiously. And it’s all the more importantly to eat well in the off hours, as our bodies slow down during the night, making it more difficult to maintain a healthy digestive system.
Here are six suggestions for eating well when working during the wee hours.
- Think small. Select small portions of meat (proteins are the toughest for us to digest at night). Have no more than three to four ounces (the size and thickness of your palm) per meal to maintain your optimal weight.
- Set your own meal schedule. You want to stay fully awake and alert during your shift, but in reality, you can’t deny your circadian rhythms. When you’re sleep-deprived and relying on vending machine food, you’re already at a disadvantage. However, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner around your “work schedule” versus the societal norm will help ease any late-night snacking.
Eat breakfast at 3 p.m. if that’s “morning” time for you because a person needs to eat within the first hour of waking up. About two hours later, have a portion-controlled dinner of healthy food for “lunch”; eat a low-fat, low-sugar snack two to three hours later; have a portion-controlled dinner with protein about two hours after that; and eat a small, healthy snack after a shift is over and it’s time to begin preparing for bed.
Many nurses eat large meals when they arrive home from work and then go to bed. However, doing so creates metabolic havoc, negatively affects sleep and may lead to weight gain.
- Plan ahead. When packing your meals, bring healthy snacks and food selections, and have a good idea about when you’ll be eating. Apples, bananas, cheese and sandwiches are easily portable.
- Drink lots of water. Each of us needs half our body weight in ounces of water each day (that is, if you weigh 140 pounds, you should be drinking at least 70 ounces of water daily). When faced with an eight-hour shift, drink at least half this amount during a shift. Carry a bottle and refill it at the water fountains throughout your shift.
If you’re not a plain-water person, you could mix in an infuser of sugar-free Crystal Light or another sugar-free brand.
- Hold the sugar, hold the fat. Avoid anything high in sugar or fat because it will not only add pounds, but will leave you feeling sleepy. Sugar consumption also results in a decrease in immune-system function and may result in frequent bouts of illness, particularly bad when you’re around sick people constantly.
- Hold the caffeine. Many nurses tend to drink large amounts of caffeine to help them stay awake. However, caffeine throws off a person’s sleep schedule.
Instead, exercise. Even if it’s just for a few minutes during a break, running in place, stretching or doing jumping jacks will reenergize you.
Working the evening shift can be a challenge, but planning ahead and making healthy choices all through the day can help ease the stress your unusual work hours take on your body. You can embrace the night schedule and thrive.