Shiftwork Nutrition

Raina Beugelink discusses how staying healthy during shiftwork is essential to success in the career and at home.

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You’re going from call to call and there is finally a moment when things slow down. You start to realize you haven’t even thought about eating, much less had time to eat on your 12 hour shift that you’re now seven hours into. In fact, you’re actually really hungry, but you’re lunch, dinner, or whatever meal you want to call it is at the PD in the fridge and you want to eat now. Hello, Whataburger! As an officer’s spouse, I tried to pack food as an act of love for my husband. He packed his own lunch too. We did it to try to save money, yet I would see those charges for Chicken Express or Dairy Queen come through. How do we make sure that officers are taking care of their main piece of equipment, their body when there is so much happening on a shift? I brought on @Shiftworkdietician, Raina Beugelink, who explains not only what happens in the body, but how we as officers and spouses can help to ensure nutrition that sustains an officer through shifts, but also a more productive recovery from night shifts. She is incredibly passionate about supporting shift workers and their families to help them increase their energy, and improve their health because she has seen firsthand the toll that it can take on mental health, physical health, and our relationships.

Raina is a registered dietician who is happily married to a first responder who worked in private practice for almost 10 years in weight management and chronic disease management.

Traps that shift workers face regarding nutrition

Fatigue and mental capacity

When it comes to shiftwork and nutrition, there first has to be an understanding of how tired first responders are while running at a low brain capacity. While on shift, they’re in a state of hypervigilance and have to make very quick and important decisions means the simpler decisions, “What’s for lunch?” takes a back seat. It can be a lot of work to constantly think about what’s the best thing to eat, so instead, an easier and faster option is chosen.

Balance

Balancing quality family time with sleeping is a common problem that exists in law enforcement.  As a result, finding time to meal plan, meal prep, and grocery shop falls by the wayside when the priority is sleep and spending time with family while off shift.

Time

While on shift, there can be very little time to eat depending on the call volume. If you work night shifts, the only options available are typically fast-food establishments. While these options do have healthier options, it is easier to eat handheld food while driving than to pull over and eat a salad in your lap. It all comes down to what foods are the fastest to choose and the fastest to eat.

Biology

When we aren’t getting the nutrition we need, it takes a toll on multiple aspects of our digestive system. Biologically, while in a state of hypervigilance or the fight or flight system, our digestive systems shuts down many times. When you are in a state of high perceived stress, blood flow is shunted away from your digestive system to those vital organs to get you out of that stressful situation and causes your cortisol levels to rise. In that moment, appetites can become suppressed and as a result, you aren’t going to digest food effectively. The blood flow is no longer circulating around the gut and supporting its digestive function making everything slow down a little bit. Our body experiences digestion changes based on our level of stress or the hormones that are being secreted.

Comfort Foods

After a stressful situation and/or tough shift our brain is looking for a set of those feel-good hormones and wants something comforting. Oftentimes this is when we turn to food as a stress management. The brain will start to associate certain foods as linked to our stress management strategies, It’s not that those foods are inherently bad, but we can often feel and get out of control with them.

Changing the mindset around nutrition

Meal Prep

As a couple, think of things that are fast and easy to meal prep that are nutrient-dense!!  Maybe it’s baking a tray of vegetables every week and portioning it into bags for easy access when your officer is running out the door or a quick side for dinner. It could be mini cans of tuna, turkey pepperoni sticks, baby bell cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, or a rotisserie chicken which is good, quality protein. If the protein is already cooked for you, it takes a meal from 30 to 45 minutes of cooking, down to about 15 to 20 minutes of just assembly. Meal prepping doesn’t need to be gourmet but set aside a little bit of time to batch cook something so the only thing required is assembly.  Meal prepping isn’t just so officers have healthy meals while on shift! It’s also so mealtimes at home are easier after a long 12–14-hour shift. Have prepared meals on hand to honor nutrient-dense choices while also freeing up more time to spend as a family.

Have the budget conversation

Preparing food can also be shifted into a budget conversation. Over time, repping chicken and vegetables and packing meals will be cheaper than eating at McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts 3-4x a week. It will certainly be less expensive than a medical bill in the long run.

Remember, the transition into healthier meals will take time!

Be prepared if you are packing your officer’s meals that they may come back full. The beast and the nature of calls can impact their ability to eat their packed meal. Maybe they had to drive a distance away to take somebody to a different location. By the time they get back to the police station to heat up lunch, another call will come in and hunger sets in.  That’s where a quick stop to a drive-through occurs so be mindful of how meals are prepared and try to pack cold meals. This small change can be a factor in the success of eating healthier, especially when working night work.

Overnight shifts and nutrition

Your circadian rhythm is the 24-hour cycle that your body follows based on the rise and set of the sun where you live. When we digest food and when our hormones are released run on this rhythm. Our entire body functions differently based on whether it’s day or night. Now when we flip that and are awake at night and trying to sleep during the day, things change in the body. Eating overnight is one of the biggest things that interrupts your circadian rhythm and causes most of the health issues that are associated with shift work.

Making those slight tweaks and adjustments in helping support your body as best you can, will make a difference. There is no expectation that those working nightwork won’t eat, but there are things that can be adjusted with food choices and meal prepping to aid in your health. At night, your gut wants to rest and restore. It is not ready to digest food very well, so it cannot clear fat and sugar out of the bloodstream nearly as well as it can during the day. Those digestive enzymes and hormones are not present to perform that action because of our circadian rhythm.

To avoid gut issues and later medical complications from eating fast food options, Raina recommends fasting between midnight and 6:00 AM, which mimics sleeping at night. If you can, take your biggest meal and move it before midnight, and if you need a couple of snacks overnight, have some snacks, but don’t make it a habit. If you fast all night and go to bed immediately after work, you’re likely going to wake up from hunger and it’s going to interrupt sleep again. When eating and drinking while working nights, monitor your caffeine as well to ensure proper sleep after coming off shift for proper recovery.

Energy and Caffeine

First responders commonly use energy drinks and caffeine to stay awake during shifts! There are several ways caffeine can be consumed. It’s often in pre-workout, energy drinks, and of course, coffee. If you are working nights, there is a high probability you consume high doses of caffeine over 24 hours. To help reduce the side effects of caffeine and improve your sleep, work on the timing and dosing of how much you are consuming. Remember that caffeine can stay in your system for 6-8 hours. This time frame can help give an idea of when is best to consume caffeinated beverages and/or energy drinks. If you get off work at 6am, it is best to limit your caffeine between 10pm-12am to ensure quality sleep.

Look for patterns and threads on what works best for you when planning on when you want to eat, what you want to eat, and how you’re going to have your caffeine that won’t impact your body and sleep negatively. Educate yourself on your body and think about strategically making decisions on how to avoid a nightshift hangover.

 

If you want to work individually with a dietician, they need to be registered in your appropriate state or in the province for one-on-one nutrition counseling.

Raina does offer The Shift Fix, which is a program to help walk through the fundamental concepts of applying nutrition at Shiftworknutrition.com 

@shiftworkdietician 

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Shiftwork Nutrition

Raina Beugelink discusses how staying healthy during shiftwork is essential to success in the career and at home.

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