Plan your way to healthier eating

Shift patterns and limited choices present barriers at work, but these strategies can help

Shift patterns and limited choices present barriers at work, but these strategies can help

Picture: Alamy

Last year Nursing Standard published a survey on the extent of weight problems among nurses. Only 40% of nurses who responded were of a healthy weight. Unfortunately, 71% of nurses felt that their employer gave little or no support to facilitate a healthy weight and lifestyle among staff.

We may try a crash diet from time to time but ultimately we know that more plants and protein and less crisps, cake and biscuits is the real answer. 

So why is it so difficult to eat healthily? There are many reasons that drive humans to eat that have little to do with hunger and nothing to do with being greedy or lazy.

Prioritise sleep

When we are particularly tired, we are drawn to eat more refined carbohydrates due to changes in hunger hormones and an increased chemical reward in our brain when we eat these foods.

Studies have demonstrated that people who are sleep deprived eat 400 calories more on average than when they’ve slept well.

‘When we eat after a night shift, we are metabolically inefficient, meaning that fats and sugars stay in our bloodstream much longer’

This means that at 4am, the salad you brought with you on your night shift is going to be far less appealing to your brain and body than whatever the vending machine has to offer. It also means that when you’ve finished a 12-hour shift, a takeaway is often more appealing than a home-cooked meal.

In addition, when we’re stressed or unhappy, our bodies recognise this as a fight or flight trigger, making us physiologically drawn to seek out energy sources that are easy to digest, which gives us power to run away or fight if we need to.

Research over the past few years has suggested that working night shifts may increase the risk of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

When we eat after a night shift, we are metabolically inefficient, meaning that fats and sugars stay in our bloodstream much longer. This dramatically increases the risk of weight gain and diabetes. 

How to make healthier food choices

  • Detach yourself from any guilt or shame about unhealthy eating Accept that you are physiologically driven to eat less healthy food when you are stressed or tired
  • Take the time to understand your patterns of eating and triggers for eating unhealthy food, and consider strategies to overcome them
  • Plan ahead Choose healthier foods you enjoy, prepare and bring them to work, and keep a stash of healthy snacks at work
  • Tell colleagues that you are trying to eat more healthily and ask for their support
  • Aim for improvement, not perfection A ready meal after a shift is better than crisps, chocolate or a takeaway


Bring your own 

Another dictator of dietary choices is our environment. If the only thing available is food from a vending machine or a fry-up in the canteen, it is much harder to make healthier choices. 

The food culture in the workplace can have a significant impact on our health because the habits of those around us influence our food choices. If you have decided to eat more healthily, tell your colleagues and ask for their support; you might inspire others to follow your example.

The ideal way to ensure healthy eating at work is to prepare meals in advance that contain plenty of vegetables, protein and some wholegrains. But you already knew that. 

When such preparation is not possible, you'll need a back-up plan.  Fortunately, these days there are some good dehydrated food options such as rice pots, which only require access to a kettle. Tinned fruit, pots of low-calorie jelly and rice pudding can also make effective snacks and can be kept at work. Nuts are a good option: as well as being low in carbohydrates and high in fibre, they also contain nutrients that are harder to find elsewhere in your diet. Fresh fruit is also an excellent choice, and the sugar from fruit has a different effect physiologically so we should never be afraid to enjoy it.

Rationalise the cravings

Take some time to understand when you feel most and least hungry when you are on shift. Also make a note of when you have found it hardest to resist less healthy options and why that might have been. Understanding yourself is the key to changing patterns of behaviour.

Even just acknowledging that you are physiologically driven to want unhealthy food when you’re stressed and tired is sometimes enough to allow you to rationalise the cravings and make a better choice.

When you’ve understood why, you can find strategies to overcome the barriers to healthy eating. For example: ‘At 3am when everything is quiet and I feel really tired, I always grab something from the vending machine.’ Identify a healthy snack that you enjoy, bring it to work, and have that at 3am instead. Maybe apple and peanut butter, or cubes of cheese with grapes, or carrot sticks and hummus.

Or: ‘When I get home from a shift, I am so tired I just want to eat everything in the fridge and sit on the sofa.’ Try planning ahead for that time by leaving yourself a ready meal that you really like or have something defrosting in the fridge. Even if what you have isn't ideal, it will be better than what you might have had otherwise, so don't feel guilty. You're much more likely to nourish your body properly if you are kind to yourself.  

Nurses face many barriers to making healthy choices, but putting the above strategies in place will make a difference. Remember, if it was easy, we'd all be doing it. By understanding more about your relationship with food and why you eat what you eat, a great deal will fall into place. 

Sophie Medlin is a registered dietitian and founder of

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