Shift work in Australia
The number of shift workers in Australia is growing every year with 1.7 million Australians working in some kind of shift work as at 2017. The term shift work for the purposes of this article refers to people who work or are awake during hours of the day/night when the majority of people would still be sleeping.
Our body clock
Our body clock (also known as the Circadian clock) tells us to do certain things at certain times of the day/night including eating, working and sleeping. A human’s body clock is naturally programmed to eat and work during the day time (sunlight hours) and sleep and fast from food during the night time (dark hours). When we disrupt the natural rhythm of our body clock, our bodies can find it hard to adjust. This can result in problems getting to sleep, feeling fatigued, feeling more stressed and an increase in eating and drinking high sugar/fat/calorie foods and drinks.
Shift work and our health
Studies have found that shift workers are at increased risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity, even when compared to non-shift workers with identical diet and exercise habits. It has also been found that after 8pm, the body doesn’t burn its food energy in the same way that it does when you eat during the day. This means that a shift worker is likely to burn 60 calories per day less than day-time workers. This may not seem much, but when this is occurring on a daily basis, it can have long-term effects on our weight and health.
Factors contributing to food choices of shift workers
There are many factors which contribute to the food choices made by shift workers. These include:
- Choosing higher sugar foods/drinks to keep us awake and energised;
- Feeling stressed which leads to higher calorie ‘comfort’ eating;
- Less healthy food choices available for purchase in the workplace;
- Interrupted and unscheduled break times, contributing to irregular eating patterns;
- Using food as a reward for working hard throughout the night.
Recommendations for managing your diet and health as a shift worker
Timing of meals
Planning and regulating when and how often we eat can help us to keep our body clock on track. The recommendations for meal timing are:
- When you’re awake, eat every 4 – 6 hours.
- Eat a small meal 1 – 2 hours before going to bed in order to prevent waking up from hunger.
- Try to have a small (around 5 hours) fasting period during the night (sometime between 10pm and 6am).
Choosing what to eat
Because our bodies process food differently in the night time, the types of food we eat can affect our blood sugar levels and therefore impact on our diabetes risk. The number of meals we have can also impact on our body clock’s ability to adapt and can help to regulate the amount of kilojoules being consumed.
- If eating during the night, choose high protein foods over high carbohydrate foods.
- Try to have the same number and type of meals each day, regardless of whether you are working or not. These meals don’t have to be at the same times, just same amounts to regulate your energy intake each day and avoid over-eating on some days.
- High protein, low carbohydrate meal/snack suggestions:
- Chicken and avocado salad (with lots of salad vegetables)
- Homemade bolognaise sauce or casserole made with lots of veggies
- Vegetable and bacon quiche or zucchini slice
- Frozen microwaveable fish with frozen vegetables
- Hard boiled eggs
- Tuna or cheese with crackers
- Unsalted nuts
- Vegetable sticks with hummus or peanut butter
- Apple or pear slices with peanut butter
- Baked beans
Many people fall in to the trap of consuming large amounts of sugary and caffeinated drinks in order to battle fatigue. These drinks add to your total caloric intake and can also cause you to build more of a tolerance to caffeine, meaning you need more and more for it to take effect.
- Stay hydrated with water (add fruit pieces or cordial for flavour);
- Avoid sugary drinks like soft drink, fruit juice and flavoured milk;
- Avoid caffeine within 4 hours of going to bed.
Further information / helpful websites
If you would like some more information or assistance with improving your diet, talk to an accredited practicing dietitian. You can also find some useful information on the following websites:
- Baker Heart & Diabetes Institute Factsheet – Convenience Meals: https://www.baker.edu.au/-/media/documents/fact-sheets/baker-institute-factsheet-convenience-meals.pdf
- Baker Heart & Diabetes Institute Factsheet – Healthy Snacks: https://www.baker.edu.au/-/media/documents/fact-sheets/baker-institute-factsheet-healthy-snacks.pdf
- Worksafe Queensland – Shift Workers Guide to Nutrition: https://www.worksafe.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/109773/shifting-nutrition.pdf
- National Sleep Foundation – Healthy Eating and Exercising When Working Shifts: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/shift-work-disorder/shift-work-you/tips-healthy-eating-and-exercising-when-working-shifts