by Gina Cortese-Shipley MS
With all the focus on healthy eating this month you might be saying, “Yes, I know I need to have healthier eating habits, but my busy work schedule makes that difficult to achieve.” Long, extended, or irregular work hours and unpredictable work demands definitely challenge our ability to make sound food choices. Yet healthy eating is vital to feeling and performing our best while on the job and can help to prevent many health issues such as cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, metabolic syndrome, and obesity. Some of the major challenges many of us experience when it comes to healthy eating are:
Having inconsistent eating patterns
Not having access to healthy food choices
Consuming too much food at one time
Eating in a rush
Snacking too frequently
Eating when digestive processes have slowed down (in conflict with the body’s natural biological rhythm)Consuming too much caffeine
Having an eating schedule that differs from those in our social environment (eating alone)
Eating to stay awake or out of boredom
If you find yourself nodding to any of the above challenges, try following some of these guidelines which may help to increase alertness, maximize work performance, and create a better functioning body.
Try to establish a normal meal schedule regardless of work hours. For most this means consuming 3 meals in a 24 hour period of time with a few snacks.
Avoid foods high in simple sugars or avoid foods with added sugar. While candy, cookies, and even some snack bars may give you a quick burst of energy these foods in the long run decrease alertness; decrease the ability to concentrate; and also can lead to feelings of fatigue. Convenience foods such as those found in vending machines are often high in sugar and should be avoided.
Avoid large meals and foods high in unhealthy fats (found often in fast-foods and take-out options) as they also tend to decrease alertness and lead to fatigue. Instead, break larger meals up into smaller portions and spread them out across the day. If your work requires you to work for 16-24 hours straight, break your food consumption up into even smaller, more frequent meals. The higher your energy need the more frequent your eating should be but within the caloric intake that your body needs.
Include protein foods in your meals and snacks. Digesting proteins increases your body temperature which can help to increase alertness. If you work late at night, a snack with a little protein will provide sustained energy when fatigue hits. Examples of proteins include: nuts and seeds, lean meats, fish, eggs, beans, low-fat dairy, and tofu.
Bring food from home. Because of the unpredictability of the work day, the lack of healthy options in the workplace, and the need to eat on the go, packing healthy meals and snacks from home will make it easier to eat healthier on your shift. Utilize refrigerators, freezers, microwaves, and toasters that may be found in your break room.
Add color to your meals. Food variety supplies different nutrients so including healthful choices in a variety of colors increases the nutritional value of your meal.
Consume a light snack after work but before bed that consists of healthy carbohydrates. You can improve the quality of your sleep by not going to bed too full or too hungry. Carbohydrates increase serotonin, a brain chemical that promotes drowsiness, making them a nice choice. Examples of healthy carbohydrates include: whole-grains such as whole-wheat bread/crackers, oatmeal, brown rice, bulgur, quinoa; fruits; and vegetables.
Cut down on caffeine. It is best to have caffeinated drinks before or early in your shift. Try to avoid caffeine at least 4-5 hours before going to sleep and limit consumption to 3-4 six ounce cups. Stimulants remain in your blood stream for up to 8 hours so poorly timing caffeine consumption as well as consuming too much of it can interfere with your ability to sleep.
Stay hydrated by consuming water or decaffeinated beverages. Dehydration can lead to feelings of fatigue.
Time your meals according to the time of day not your shift. Regardless of what time you get up, eat breakfast as this helps to stimulate your metabolism. Have your main meal “mid-day” versus in the middle of your shift.
Eat or drink something warm at around midnight when working the nightshift. Our body temperature naturally declines as this is normally our “rest time” and this can lead to feeling sleepy.
So how does one achieve the guidelines above? While it is definitely challenging, planning your meals and snacks in order to be prepared ahead of time can help. Below are some helpful tips that will hopefully make healthy eating at work more of a reality for you.
Go to MyPyramid.gov (Daily Food Plan under Interactive Tools) to determine how many calories your body needs. Your Daily Food Plan report will also tell you how many cups or ounces from each food group you need.
As mentioned above, bring meals from home that can be easily heated in the microwave. You can even prepare multiple meals in advance and store them in the break room freezer, pre-portioned for easy re-heating. Soups, stews, and casseroles work nicely for this.
While homemade foods are a better option, purchased frozen meals could also be stored in the freezer. Look for options that have a good amount of vegetables, do not contain heavy sauces, are low in saturated fat, contain whole grains and lean meats, contain less than 800 mg of sodium (this is about 1/3 of the total recommended allowance for the whole day), and have 3-5 grams of fiber.
Keep nuts, nut butters, cans of tuna or salmon, whole grain crackers, whole grain cereal/oatmeal, low-sodium vegetable or bean soups on hand for food in a pinch.
Bring in fresh fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy options (yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, milk) to store in your break room refrigerator.
Keep any utensils you may need stored in your break room such as forks, spoons, knives, microwave safe dishware, can opener, and extra storage containers.
Here are some healthy food combinations that are relatively easy to throw together even when you are short on time.
Oatmeal and fresh fruit
Sandwich with whole-grain bread and lean meats
Whole-wheat pita with hummus, avocado, lettuce, and tomato
Whole grain cereal and low-fat milk with fresh fruit
Vegetables with cottage cheese or yogurt dip
Fruit with low-fat cheese
Peanut butter with fruit, vegetables, or whole grain crackers/bread
Nuts and seeds with dried fruit
Hummus with raw vegetables or whole grain crackers
Whole grain tortillas with low fat cheese
Yogurt and fresh fruit
Green leaf salad with tuna or boiled eggs on top with light dressing
By incorporating just a few of these suggestions, you will be on your way to feeling and performing your best no matter what comes your way during your “work day.”