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Fueling the Shift Worker


Has your weight soared and energy level taken a dive since you started working the night shift? Do you feel unsure of when, what and how much you should be eating? Working at night goes against the normal circadian rhythm that directs our body to digest and metabolize food during the day and fast while we sleep at night. It’s not your imagination if you feel like your body is working against you, but don’t despair. Here are some strategies for peak performance when your body clock is fighting you:

  • A great time for a shift worker to exercise is after waking up, before work. It can help spark your appetite and increase your energy level for many hours after. Short on time? Try this 7-minute workout .
  • Not sure when to eat your main meal?  Consider when your body and brain are going to be the most active. This is when good nourishment is crucial and will help assure you maintain high energy levels, alertness and focus when you need it most. For the shift worker, this will likely be the meal you eat right before going to work, or what is normal supper time for day shift workers. This is also the best time of the day for your body to digest a larger meal, as digestive processes slow down during the night. 
  • If you are not accustomed to eating before you go to work, this may be a gradual process that starts with a small snack. Hunger cues should adjust accordingly as you re-train your body to a new pattern of eating. Avoid letting more than 5 hours pass without eating again. If you tend to eat small meals/ snacks as opposed to full meals, try to eat every 3 hours.
  • Your food intake should taper down as you get closer to bedtime and are less active, which some research suggests may also help with weight management. Digesting a large meal close to bedtime can also negatively affect sleep.
  • Caffeine can stay in your system for up to 8 hours and can be very disruptive to sleep. Have your caffeine within the first 4 hours after waking up for the day and then cut it off.  The FDA recommends keeping caffeine intake to < 400mg a day. 
  • Sweetened soda, sports and energy drinks may give you a temporary burst of energy, but the long term impact on your energy levels is draining. Nutritionally, they are a disaster: a lot of calories yet not filling and virtually no nutritional value. Energy drinks may also contain undetermined amounts of caffeine and herbal concoctions of questionable safety. 
  • Even mild dehydration can zap your energy levels and affect concentration. Keep well hydrated with unsweetened beverages (like water and unsweetened tea). Fluid needs vary depending on body weight and temperature, but you’ll definitely need extra when sweating. Use your urine color as a guide: with proper hydration, urine should be pale yellow.
  • Have a plan a week in advance for what you will be eating at work and home. Just “winging it” without a plan makes you much more susceptible to poor choices, like vending and fast foods. Sketch it out before going to the grocery store, remembering items for snacks and portable lunches. When you do have time to cook, always cook extra and freeze leftovers to have on busy days.
  • The best foods for energy, focus, weight management and digestion are low in unhealthy fats and simple sugars, and include: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein sources and low-fat dairy products. Portable options might include: hard boiled eggs, peanut butter, string cheese, yogurt, fresh fruit, fresh veggie slices, hummus, canned tuna, whole grain cereal, nuts and seeds. A great resource for healthy, quick and budget friendly recipes and meal plans is Choose MyPlate.


Optimal health requires commitment under the best of circumstances, and shift workers have additional challenges. However, it is achievable if you make your health a priority and you have a plan. It may require some trial and correction as your body adjusts to a new pattern of eating, but it will be worth the effort. Proper fueling will keep your engine revved and performance high while the rest of us are idling in slumber!




Photo Credit: Miguel Castaneda 

Ellen Gillespie, RD, ACE-CPT