What to eat if you’re a shift worker


Difficulty sleeping

Shift work can throw a spanner in the works when it comes to your metabolism and sleep pattern. However, eating the right foods at night time may help your body cope better and reduce fatigue.

Night shift workers commonly experience disruption to the natural biological clock – also known as the circadian rhythm – of their bodies. This can lead to insomnia and excessive fatigue, which is often referred to as 'shift work disorder' (SWD). The disorder is linked with absenteeism, accidents and errors at work, mood disorders and depression.

However, a recently published study has shown that diet can play a major role in helping to reduce SWD and keep shift workers healthy.

Rotating shift workers, in particularly women and older adults, are at greater risk of developing poor health and mental health disorders, according to the German study that explored the coping strategies most commonly used to reduce SWD.

Learning about food groups that have health benefits, but which are also suited to shift workers, can really help, says Jean Hailes naturopath Sandra Villella.

"Shift workers are at increased risk of metabolic disorders and cardiovascular disease, and women are at increased risk of breast cancer," says Sandra. "So the focus on food is not only to fuel the body efficiently for energy and concentration but also to reduce the risk of disease."

Based on the evidence, Sandra recommends the following guidelines when preparing for your next shift, and suggests printing them out and putting them up in your kitchen or in your locker at work.

Carbohydrate-rich foods can cause a post-meal 'slump' in blood sugar, causing sleepiness and reducing your ability to concentrate. So choose a wholefood diet consisting of vegetables, fruit, wholegrains and low-carb food

  • All meals should include at least 1/3 protein (think palm-sized), low GI (glycaemic index) carbohydrates and non-starchy vegetables or fruit (berries are especially good)
  • Protein snacks – such as cheese on wholegrain crackers, a boiled egg or a handful of nuts – are best during your shift as they provide amino acids, which aids concentration and the ability to perform well under stress
  • Caffeine may be useful at the beginning of a shift to promote wakefulness, but avoid caffeine at least six hours before sleeping
  • Stick as closely as possible to a normal day-and-night pattern of food intake and watch portion sizes to avoid overeating
  • Ideally, eat in a designated dining facility (tea room) away from your work station, preferably with colleagues, as socialising helps you relax and is good for mood
  • Avoid sugar-rich products such as soft drinks, commercial cakes and biscuits, and other high-GI foods including white bread. If a 'sweet' is required, try 1-2 homemade raw cacao balls
  • Some healthy snacks that are ideal for working shifts: small handful of raw unsalted nuts; yoghurt or cheese; fruit; vegetable and legume soup; vegetable sticks and hummus, nut spread or tzatziki; canned fish; a boiled egg; green tea.

Jean Hailes' naturopath Sandra Villella has created shift-specific menus – including some recipes from our own Jean Hailes Kitchen – to help you get the right mix of nutrients while you are doing the graveyard shift. Print out the menu, put it up at work or home and feel free to share with your colleagues!

Midnight-hour menus

Breakfasts

These provide energy during a day shift, or are eaten after a night shift before you go to sleep to avoid waking up due to hunger.

  • Rolled oats – as porridge, or unsweetened muesli with yoghurt, or Bircher muesli prepared in advance
  • Wholegrain toast with boiled or poached egg, or sardines; ideally add vegetables such as mushrooms and spinach, some tomato or avocado, or cottage/ricotta cheese, or baked beans
  • Smoothie – milk/soy milk/almond milk and yoghurt, berries and freshly ground seeds and nuts
  • Frittata

Lunch and/or dinner

  • Meat, chicken, fish and salad or vegetables: for example, chicken stir-fry and vegetables with brown rice; salmon and coriander pesto and salad
  • Canned fish and salad
  • Frittata made with sweet potato, vegetables and feta cheese
  • Tofu and vegetable stir-fry
  • One-pot chicken and greens
  • Rainbow meatloaf
  • Lighter meals such as cauliflower and cannellini bean soup served with yoghurt or feta 
  • Sardines and green beans served on tofu
  • Wholegrain sandwich with protein (chicken, canned fish, roast beef, egg, cottage or ricotta cheese) and salad.
  • Lentil and vegetable soup with dollop of yoghurt

Read more about eating for good health and watch a video of five simple tips to get more nutritious habits in your day.

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