Episode 93 – Nutrition For Shift Workers

Key Topics Covered

  • I have heaps of clients that are shift workers and it can be a hard slog to manage their nutrition given their work schedules  
  • But “rather than focus on the downsides of shift work, we just want to go through some of the things you CAN do” 

Thoughts on Specific Strategies That are Common Recommendations 

  • I often hear people talk about how we should change our intake based on either insulin sensitivity at different times of day OR other factors such as “we shouldn’t eat overnight because our body is meant to be sleeping and isn’t designed to digest food well at that time.” 

Addressing The Insulin Aspect 

  • In non-shift workers I don’t do anything in relation to this. Research indicates that insulin sensitivity is a bit higher in the morning than in the evening. But the body of research indicates that this is not overly relevant for things like body composition, if total calories and protein are the same.  
  • It has potential relevance for diabetes, but any changes made to account for this usually result in changes that would have affected the big picture regardless. E.g. if you stop having carbs in the evening because insulin sensitivity is a bit low, it likely changes your total carbohydrate and calorie intake significantly. And the change in those things would impact the management of the diabetes regardless, by more than the difference in insulin sensitivity. 
  • This same principle holds true for shift work. Technically insulin sensitivity would be different. But I wouldn’t make major changes based on that. 

Addressing The Not Sleeping Overnight Concept 

  • I have similar thoughts on this. 
  • If you don’t eat overnight during your shift AND you try to sleep 8 hours, when do you actually eat? 
  • You end up with a condensed period of time where you can eat and have to try get your normal calorie intake in. 
  • Depending on your goals this can be a potential issue for many reasons
    • Not able to get enough calories in to meet your needs 
    • Not managing appetite well in a weight/fat loss phase  
    • Digestive issues from eating in a very small window 
    • Big peaks and troughs in energy levels due to inconsistent food/carb intake – potential need for more caffeine during shift = issues with sleep  
    • And honestly probably a lot more but those would be the main ones  

What Do We Actually Recommend? 

  • I recommend aiming to keep your 24 hour intake similar to usual. Ideally you want to consume a similar amount of calories, protein, fibre and micronutrients to normal. 
  • Potentially, try and keep the same meal frequency too. If you normally consume 3x meals and 2x snacks, for example, keep trying to do that in each 24 hour period. 
  • There are cases where that would be silly though. If that approach doesn’t work, just switch things up and rearrange things in a way that makes it work for you and your needs. E.g. if you consistently don’t feel like a meal at a certain time, it makes sense to restructure things. 
  • In some cases the 24 hour period doesn’t make sense due to the length and timing of shifts. In that case, I’d switch to a 48 hour period where you just double the total intake and try to fit it into that timeframe.  

Caffeine 

  • Even though caffeine makes it easier to get through a night shift, I’d still follow similar principles of trying to discontinue use >6hrs before going to bed. 
  • Sleep can already be an issue with shift work, so you don’t want to add issues with caffeine usage on top 

Relevant Links / Resources

Insulin Sensitivity Throughout The Day

ISSN Position Stand on Diets and Body Composition – Covering Research About Meal Timing