Do you work long hours? Whatever your job or circumstances, after-hours work can compromise your health — sometimes it’s just easier to wolf down unhealthy food, which can lead to weight gain. Nutritionist Amanda Ursell looks at ways to eat well, no matter your timetable.
You don’t need to be a shift worker to have your work/life balance thrown out of kilter. Anyone who works outside the standard nine-to-five day, works to strict deadlines, travels a lot for work or rotates their hours will be familiar with the challenges of the modern workplace. Flexible working environments mean fewer people follow a traditional timetable. You only have to talk to those who work irregular hours in the hospitality or media industries, who are nurses, pilots, police officers or who work in 24-hour call centres to understand how it can take its toll — physically, psychologically and emotionally.
What’s the link with poorer health?
Research suggests that, compared with nine-to-five employees, night shift workers appear to be more accident prone and at greater risk of developing sleep disorders. They can also be more susceptible to digestive problems, illnesses such as colds and flu, high blood pressure, heart disease, mental health issues and reproductive problems in women. Studies also show that shift work may exacerbate existing health conditions, such as asthma.
In the long term, shift workers are also more likely to become overweight or obese, and have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Look for reasons why and four culprits emerge: shift work and long hours mean we’re more likely to eat unhealthily, exercise less, use our smartphones at all hours and succumb to disruption of our natural body clock.
1. Poor diet
Scientists have found that shift workers tend to snack more often instead of making time to sit down to a meal. This way of eating can put a strain on blood pressure, increase LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise blood sugar levels. Plus it can bump up kilojoules, which, paired with too little exercise, leads to weight gain.
Lack of nutrition
Research in the UK has found shift workers tend to eat, on average, fewer portions of veges and fruit than non-shift workers. But it’s easy to see how healthy eating intentions can fall by the wayside in the workplace. For example, if the staff café closes after lunch, workers on the late or night shift won’t have access to proper meals. Add to this the often inadequate provision of cooking facilities for employees to prepare their own meals and you can quickly see how ‘after hours’ workers get left at the mercy of vending machines and take- away menus. So while weight can creep on, nutritional intake often nosedives too. Problems such as vitamin D deficiency (from a lack of exposure to sunshine), eating fewer vegetables and low intakes of vitamin A, zinc and fibre, have all been noted among shift workers.
What goes around, comes around
While a lack of fibre may cause problems with digestion such as constipation, poor intakes of vitamin A and zinc can affect other areas of health, including impaired immunity. This can lead to us contracting more coughs, colds and other infections, which, in turn, exacerbates tiredness, disrupts concentration and increases stress levels. A compromised immune system can, over time, make us prone to more serious health concerns. And all this can become a vicious circle.
After-hours workers face a particular challenge when it comes to fitting in regular exercise. But that’s not to say it’s impossible to stay active. An activity tracker or fitness app can prompt you to exercise and spend more time standing up at work. You could sign up to a low-cost 24-hour gym, fit in a quick (and free!) YouTube exercise video before work, or make the most of your days off to boost activity levels by going for a walk or bike ride. Not only will this benefit your physical fitness, but it could also help regulate sleep and boost energy levels so you’re ready for the next day.
3. Disrupted body clock
Health problems associated with irregular work hours can’t simply be blamed on a lack of exercise and poor eating habits, though. Humans have body clocks that are set to be awake, active and digesting food during daylight hours and sleeping (so not eating) at night time. Switching these patterns around has been found to reduce our resting metabolic rate and thus the speed we burn kilojoules. It can also increase levels of glucose in our blood due to inadequate insulin response after a meal.
Regardless of the hours we are officially ‘working’, with a smartphone at our fingertips 24 hours a day, it can be almost impossible to disengage and switch off, unless you create boundaries for yourself. It may seem like a good idea to answer a few work emails in the middle of the night or dip into social media if you happen to wake up, but the simple fact that you are looking at a device which emits a lot of blue light, can make it more difficult to get back to sleep because it can suppress your body’s production of melatonin. It’s easy to create a disruptive sleep cycle and exacerbate sleep issues when mobile devices are involved.
What YOU can do
Although there is still a lack of scientific research into the area of after-hours working and diet, there is some data to draw on. It suggests that eating and drinking in certain ways may help health outcomes.
The main principle is to stick as closely as possible to normal daytime meal patterns. If you’re a shift worker and/or work through the night, try to stick to a pattern of eating three meals at regular times, with a healthy snack as needed to maintain your energy throughout the night.
- Eat breakfast between 6am and 10am: This may well be when you finish work, but it’s best to eat before your daytime sleep to avoid waking because you’re hungry. Avoid a large, heavy meal within two hours of sleep, though. A bowl of wholegrain cereal or porridge is ideal.
- Have lunch between noon and 4pm: This can be hard if you’re trying to pack in as much sleep as possible before the next working day/night, but even if you have to push timings back, aiming to fit a meal in between these hours is likely to be good for your metabolism.
- Save dinner for between 5pm and midnight: You don’t have to eat a full meal — a healthy sandwich followed by yoghurt and fruit may be more suitable. Leaving this meal as late as possible within this time frame means you have the best chance of getting through the night without grabbing a takeaway menu. If this doesn’t fit in with your schedule, choose foods that keep concentration and energy levels up (such as those listed in the box, opposite) rather than fat-filled convenience foods, which put demands on the digestive system at a time when it should be calm.
What your employer can do
Being aware that after-hours work is a potential health hazard is a starting point. Employers need to understand their full responsibilities when it comes to their workers and acknowledge the particular health and dietary issues that may affect them — and take active steps to address them. In practice, they can…
- Develop a well-being and nutrition strategy with work schedules that allow enough time between work hours for sleep, meal preparation, exercise and downtime for relaxation.
- Provide proper food storage and preparation areas, as well as comfy eating places.
- Replace high-sugar, high-fat snacks with more nutritious foods. This may mean an overhaul of vending machines. At the very least, water needs to be within easy reach, as dehydration can add to feelings of fatigue and stress.
When work sabotages your healthy habits
These typical work situations can result in us making poor choices.
- Conferences: There is usually plenty of coffee, savouries and muffins on hand — not to mention the alcohol at the end of the day. Set yourself up with a healthy breakfast and try not to eat food just because it is there.
- Work trips: Travelling, switching time zones and meetings can easily encourage overeating and drinking too much alcohol. Pack a few travel-friendly healthy snacks so you’ve got something on hand. Opt for non-alcoholic drinks to stay hydrated.
- Working to strict deadlines: Pressure and stress can mean it becomes all too easy to choose unhealthy snacks. Keep a desk drawer full of non- perishable food for when you’re too busy to break for lunch or snacks, eg cans of tuna, rice crackers, 90-second rice and peanut butter.
- Setting up a business: When you’re focused on setting up a new business, you might find yourself working 24/7 and may not take breaks to eat or drink. Try to take regular breaks, even if you feel you ‘shouldn’t’. You can’t run on an empty tank.
- Working from home: It can be easy to pick and nibble all day! Put tempting foods out of sight and have your ‘work zone’ well away from the kitchen.
- Project management: Big jobs with big responsibilities can be stressful and mean opportunities to eat and drink can be few. Being hungry and stressed is not a good combination. Schedule breaks for lunch and snacks in your diary. Keep to them.
- Exams or online courses: If you’re on a mission to learn, you need to keep your brain fuelled. Opting for sugary, caffeine-laden drinks and junky snack foods is not the best option. Take a few minutes out of your study time to prepare healthy snacks and lunch the day before the exam or course, so you can grab and go.
Best snack foods
Fill up on
- vegetable-based soup
- fresh fruit or fruit salad
- low-fat Greek yoghurt
- wholemeal bread, toast or a sandwich
- reduced- fat cheddar
- ricotta or cottage cheese
- boiled eggs
- unsalted nuts and seeds
- High-energy sugary foods such as cakes, biscuits and muffins. They may satisfy a craving but they won’t keep you going. Foods with protein and fibre will fill you up and keep hunger pangs at bay while you’re working.
Best drink choices
Quench your thirst
Choose sugar-free and caffeine-free options, such as:
- herbal tea
- decaffeinated tea
- decaffeinated coffee
All can be useful for hydration, helping you get through a shift without flagging. It is, of course, crucial to remain well hydrated; dehydration can affect energy levels, focus and stress levels.
- caffeinated tea and coffee
- energy drinks
They may feel like the natural choice to help get you through a night shift, but the best advice is to avoid them entirely. If you can’t resist, have these drinks at the start of the shift to avoid disrupting sleep once you have clocked off.
How to beat the midnight munchies
There are many reasons for people to eat late at night. It may be that you work irregular hours, or you simply prefer your meals later in the evening. This isn’t a problem if it fits into your lifestyle and you are successfully managing your weight. But if night-time eating is causing you to pile on the kilos, it’s worth looking at the factors affecting your meal pattern and considering if you can change them.
This is quite normal if you’ve been drinking a lot of alcohol. The key to controlling the after-pub binge is to eat before you go out, and drink sensibly and within the guidelines of no more than two standard units of alcohol for women and three for men, with water or sugar-free drinks in between.
Night eating syndrome
For some people, night eating has less obvious causes and may require expert help:
- Identify reasons for your disrupted sleep, such as restless leg syndrome, sleep apnoea, night terrors or snoring, then seek help. If you don’t wake up in the night, you won’t be tempted to eat.
- Increase exercise during the day. Follow a consistent routine so that you are more likely to sleep through the night because you are genuinely tired.
- Keep a precise food and sleep diary, including sleep and waking times, along with any thoughts about why you want to eat when you wake. This will help you make a good start towards finding a solution. Counselling or another form of therapy could also help.
New year’s resolutions for better work / life balance
Set yourself up for the best year yet:
- Write a list of five habits you want to create rather than five things you want to stop doing. Focusing on the positive can be very motivating — ‘I will take lunch to work each day,’ rather than, ‘I won’t eat burgers for lunch!’
- Create a healthy environment at work and at home — make it easy to find and snack on healthy foods, and keep the treats out of sight.
- Set digital boundaries — keep your phone away from your bedside and on silent at night and no more midnight email reading!
- Set up a DIY vege snack box. Chop up veges as you make dinner and keep them in a transparent container at the front of the fridge so they are the first things you see when you’re peckish.
- Find a way to unwind and destress that doesn’t involve TV or looking at a screen. Colouring books, audio books, walking and yoga are some healthy ideas.
Article sources and references
- Antunes LC et al. 2010. Obesity and shift work: chronobiological aspects. Nutrition Research Reviews 12:155-68https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20122305
- Atkinson G et al. 2008. Exercise, energy balance and the shift worker. Sports Medicine 38:671https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18620467
- Buxton OM et al. 2012. Adverse metabolic consequences in humans of prolonged sleep restriction combined with circadian disruption. Science Translational Medicine 4:129ra43https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22496545
- Eberly R & Feldman H. 2010. Obesity and shift work in the general population. The Internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice 8:Article 10https://nsuworks.nova.edu/ijahsp/vol8/iss3/10/
- Gates Ta et al. 2014. Light as a central modulator of circadian rhythms, sleep and affect. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 15: 443-54https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24917305
- Harrington JM. 2001. Health effects of shift work and extended hours of work. Occupational & Environmental Medicine 58:68-72https://oem.bmj.com/content/58/1/68
- Harvard Health Publications. 2015. Blue light has a dark side www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-sidehttps://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side
- Health and Safety Executive (UK). 2006. Managing shift Work: Health and Safety Guidancehttp://www.hse.gov.uk/pUbns/priced/hsg256.pdf
- Lowden A et al. 2010. Eating and shift work – effects on habits, metabolism and performance. Scandanavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health 36:150-62https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20143038
- Thomas C & Power C. 2010. Shift work and risk factors for cardiovascular disease: a study at age 45 years in the 1958 British birth cohort. European Journal of Epidemiology 25:305-14https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20237824
- Weston L. 2013. Chapter 6. Shift work. Health Survey for Englandhttps://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/health-survey-for-england/health-survey-for-england-2013