Healthy eating is important for everyone, especially those who work at night. Research has shown that working the night shift has been associated with a higher risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Good nutrition, along with adequate sleep and exercise, can help lower these risks.
Why does working the night shift lead to higher health risks?
We are wired to sleep at night and eat while awake during the day. When the body's natural sleep-wake cycle is disrupted, we do not digest food as well. The hormone leptin, which tells us when we are full, has a harder time being released at night. This can lead to overeating and weight gain, because our bodies do not know we are already satisfied. Nighttime eating also causes higher blood glucose levels after meals. This happens because when we are awake at night, the body has a harder time responding to insulin, which controls blood glucose. These high glucose levels and decreased use of insulin can lead to diabetes and damage the blood vessels.
Many find it difficult to eat well when their days and nights are reversed. Studies have shown that working at night is associated with eating fewer fruits and vegetables and more foods that are high in sugar and fat. Eating too many fatty foods and not enough healthy foods can cause weight gain and negatively affect heart health.
How can I eat healthy while working the night shift?
Timing - It is possible to eat a healthy diet while working the night shift. Try to eat three complete meals as close as possible to normal meal times during the day. The body does not process food as well during the night, so avoid or limit eating between midnight and 6:00 a.m.
Quality - What you eat is also important. Drink water instead of sugar-sweetened beverages and choose baked or grilled foods instead of fried options. Snack on fruit, nuts, or unbuttered popcorn. Plan and prep meals on off days to make workday meals quick and easy. This can also help avoid impulse buys of food with less quality. Practice good nutrition by following by following these guidelines:
- Eat a lean protein source at each meal. Chicken, fish, eggs, and beans are great options.
- Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. Aim for a variety of colors.
- Make half your grains whole grains. Choose foods like brown rice, whole grain bread, and oatmeal.
- Enjoy 3 servings of low-fat dairy each day. One serving equals one cup of milk, 1.5 ounces of cheese, or one cup of yogurt.
With a little planning, you can reduce the health risks associated with working at night. For a balanced approach, eat as close to normal meal times as possible, choose a variety of healthy foods, and remember to also schedule time in your day for adequate sleep and physical activity! You should try to get 7-8 hours of sleep each day and 30 minutes of physical activity 5 times a week.
Practice eating healthy, balanced snacks featuring carbohydrates and protein for long-lasting fullness.
Vegetarian Chickpea Sandwich Filling
Shrimp and Couscous with Yogurt
Night Shift Handout
- Lowden A, Moreno C, Holmbäck U, Lennernäs M, Tucker P. Eating and shift work - effects on habits, metabolism and performance. Scand J Work Environ Health. 2010 Mar;36(2):150-62.
- Scheer FA, Hilton MF, Mantzoros CS, et al. Adverse metabolic and cardiovascular consequences of circadian misalignment. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2009;106:4453–8.