Working the night shift

Rain or shine, they work when everyone else is asleep. It’s not so easy to eat well when your work schedule doesn’t match mealtimes. It’s even harder when you make your living burning the midnight oil.

Taxi drivers, nurses, doctors, security guards, snow removal workers, police, ambulance technicians, cashiers, hotel receptionists, bakers…. In Quebec, nearly 700,000 people have an atypical schedule and work in the evening, at night or on shifts. Compared to those who work during the day, night shift workers run a higher risk of suffering from health problems, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, stomach ulcers and digestive problems.

When I hosted a morning show, I experienced some of the same problems as people who have to be up in the middle of the night. Among the common problems I noticed: snacking, increased consumption of coffee and food stimulants, loss of appetite signals, constipation and digestive problems, weight gain over the long term and many questions about what and when to eat. These are the same observations found in rare scientific studies on the subject and shared by shift workers with whom I’ve talked about this issue. The following stories recount the main problems experienced by night shift workers and offer solutions.

“I have gained weight since I’ve been working at night, especially around my waistline. It’s true that I snack all the time… I also have high blood pressure and I’m starting to worry about my heart.”
Michel, 54, security guard

THE PROBLEM: There are many reasons for the weight gain experienced by night shift workers, and more frequent snacking is at the top of the list. A bag of chips or a chocolate bar is more tempting when you’re cold, bored or tired. The calories build up fast and result in extra weight that is both unwelcome and harmful to your health.

THE SOLUTION: To limit snacking, eat complete, nutritious meals on a structured schedule. Keep snacks out of reach. Ask yourself before opening that bag of peanuts or jujubes: “Am I really hungry?” If the answer is yes, take 10, close the bag and eat them slowly. Choose snacks that fill you up, that are rich in fibre and protein to keep you awake and sustain you until the next meal. Choose fruit and vegetables instead of juice. Match your carton of milk with a small carrot and nut muffin or bread with peanut butter. Remember that food filled with refined sugar or fat, such as soft drinks, candy, cake, chips, sausages and fries, are less nutritious. They also make you less alert by speeding up digestion (sugary food), or slowing it down (fatty food), leading to that sudden feeling of tiredness you want to avoid. If you tend to grab a snack out of habit, find another way to alleviate your boredom. Chew some sugar-free gum, do a few stretches or take a walk.

“Some people say it’s better to eat three complete meals even when working the night shift. I’ve also read that it is better to eat six or seven small, light meals. I’m also always cold. I really don’t know what to do!”
Katherine, 33, nurse

THE PROBLEM: There’s no hard and fast rule about the number of meals you should eat.  Some people easily adapt to a non-traditional schedule and eat three meals with no difficulty. Other people aren’t hungry and have to spread their meals throughout their waking hours. Finally, many workers are more sensitive to cold at night and warm up by drinking lots of coffee and snacking on sweets.

THE SOLUTION: The number of meals isn’t important. Pick a formula that works best for your body. The key is choosing nourishing foods that sustain you.

Set up a meal routine and try to eat at regular times every day. Don’t work on an empty stomach.  Start your shift off on the right foot by at least eating something, such as cereal or yogurt or fruit. If you are not hungry at all, a protein drink (banana milkshake or smoothie) should do the trick. Eat with a group, if you can, to stimulate your appetite. Sit down and take the take to time to enjoy your meal in an environment that is as pleasant and comfortable as possible.

Are you cold? Don’t drink too much coffee. Warm up with another hot liquid: soup, broth, green tea, herbal tea, hot water with lemon… Fight the urge to grab something sweet, such as a donut, chocolate and cookies, that offers nothing but empty calories. Protein is a better fuel choice if you are hungry: cheese and grapes, oatmeal cookies and a glass of milk, handful of nuts, pita triangles and hummus, apple slices and almond butter, milk pudding… When you get home, eat before going to bed so you don’t wake up hungry. Avoid big meals, because they will disturb your much deserved sleep.

“I’ve always eaten well, even since I started patrolling at night. But the thing is that I have started having digestive problems. I often have stomach aches and get constipated. What can I do to avoid this?” 
Alexandra, 34, police officer

THE PROBLEM: Reflux, heartburn, bloating or constipation, some night shift workers suffer from various digestive problems that affect their quality of life.

For heartburn and reflux:

  • Don’t wait more than 3 hours between meals, because food helps reduce acidity in the stomach.
  • Avoid irritants if you believe they will increase your symptoms: spices, spicy condiments, citrus, mint, alcohol, caffeine or methylxanthines (found in coffee, chocolate, cacao and cola).
  • Cut back on fatty and fried foods (e.g.: poutine, donuts, dishes with creamy sauce) since they can cause digestion and discomfort.

For intestinal regularity:
Double your consumption of fibre-rich foods until you reach an intake of 25 g a day. How? Fill at least a third of your plate with vegetables. Swap white bread and rice for brown. Try whole wheat pasta with grilled vegetables and feta. Add chickpeas to your salad. Have a piece of fruit for dessert or as a snack. Don’t forget to drink! Water, especially, but also milk, juice, tea, broth… insufficient hydration also causes fatigue. If you don’t already, eat yogurt that contains bifidus, L. casei or L. acidophilus, probiotics that contribute to intestinal health (reduce bloating, gas and abdominal cramps). There are also supplements you can take.

“I often find it hard to fall asleep after finishing my night at the bakery. I usually drink six or seven cups of coffee. Is that too much?” Françoise, 47, baker

THE PROBLEM: Many night shift workers fuel up with coffee to stay awake, and other stimulants too, such as cola, energy drinks, tea, chocolate, caffeine pills, as well as some medication, including those for migraine relief. Two problems can arise with this sort of consumption, excessive or not. Caffeine temporarily blocks the effects of fatigue and disturbs sleep patterns in sensitive people. Caffeine can also cause anxiety, irritability and heartburn when consumed in large quantities. Health Canada recommends you limit your caffeine intake to 400 mg a day, from all sources.

THE SOLUTION: Limit yourself to three cups of regular-sized filtered coffee (250 ml/1 cup), or even less if you consume other food stimulants. Avoid those super-sized cups that load on the caffeine. Instead of having cup after cup, it’s good to know that a snack filled with carbs (fruit, vegetables, cereal products) or protein (milk products, soy beverages, meat, eggs, nuts, and legumes) will also keep you awake and alert. Looking for a good night sleep? Cut off the coffee, tea, energy drinks, cola and chocolate at least five hours before hitting the sack. Save them for the beginning of your shift. Do you really want a hot drink? Grab an herbal tea, hot cider with cinnamon (minus the alcohol), hot chocolate made with milk or a decaffeinated coffee or tea.

“Everything, or almost everything, is closed at night. I end up buying a small sandwich, a bag of pretzels and a pop at a gas station. I would like to eat better!” Richard, 31, taxi driver

THE PROBLEM: Gas stations and corner stores are not all equal when it comes to the food they offer. At best, there’s a refrigerated section with ready-to-eat meals and sandwiches; at worst, there’s nothing but snacks filled with too much salt, fat and sugar. However, if your workplace doesn’t have access to a food service open at night or a kitchenette, it is hard to resist the temptation of vending machines.

THE SOLUTION: Bring your own food. Get a lunch box equipped with ice packs. Fill it with light, yet nourishing food: roast beef sandwich, legume salad, vegetables and dip, yogurt, and crackers, fruit salad… The possibilities are endless.

You want to eat something warm, but don’t have access to a microwave? Invest in a stainless steel thermos. You can fill it with a delicious homemade stew and enjoy a moment of pure pleasure!

Hélène Laurendeau

A nutrition and health enthusiast who loves to share: this description fits Hélène Laurendeau to a tee. She has been active for more than 25 years in the media and communications field. Nutritionist, host, columnist, author and speaker, Hélène holds a Bachelor degree in Nutrition and a Master degree in Epidemiology. She has spread her knowledge alongside Ricardo every week since 2005, as part of his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé, as well as in Ricardo magazine, where she pens the Bien se nourrir (Eating Well) column.