Managing Weight Loss When You're A Shift Worker
Not everyone has the typical 9-to-5 work schedule. Think about police, firefighters, nurses, doctors, security guards, bakery workers, bartenders; the list goes on and on. While most of the population is sleeping when it is dark out, some people are up and working, fighting against the internal system that makes us alert during the day and sleep at night. Disruptions in this system – known as the circadian rhythm -- are linked to weight gain and a host of other health issues. So what is exactly is a circadian rhythm and what can you do to prevent your nontraditional work hours from derailing your weight loss efforts – especially if you’ve had bariatric surgery or are trying another non-surgical weight loss approach? Read on!
Circadian rhythm is a natural, internal system that’s designed to regulate feelings of sleepiness and wakefulness over a 24-hour period, according to the National Sleep Foundation. It is controlled by an area of the brain called the hypothalamus that responds to light. The circadian rhythm is the reason that we start to feel tired at night. How does this happen? When our eyes see darkness, they signal to the hypothalamus that it’s time to sleep. Our hypothalamus then signals to our brain “it’s time to start feeling tired, release that lovely, sleep-inducing melatonin!”
Shift workers, particularly those who work overnight, often find their circadian rhythms are disrupted, leading to metabolic imbalances, poor quality of sleep and insufficient quantity of sleep. In research focusing on night shift workers, evidence shows that disruptions in these circadian rhythms contribute to cardiovascular disease, increased body mass, and elevated glucose and lipid levels. For this reason, shift workers who are trying to lose or maintain weight in particular need to pay close attention to their sleep schedule, meal structure and food choices. Here are some tips to help.
- Set the stage for sounder sleep (and more of it). Adequate sleep plays a huge role in weight loss and maintenance. The more you’re awake, the more time to eat and to snack! What’s more, research has shown that when someone is lacking sleep, they tend to crave calorie-dense, high carbohydrate foods. Improving the quality and quantity of sleep will help. Try to limit exposure to daylight once your shift is over, heading straight to bed if it is still dark out and resisting the urge to stay up until daybreak. Install blackout shades in your bedroom and put on ear plugs and an eye mask to reduce the natural light. Avoid caffeine close to sleep time and disconnect yourself from your phone.
- Plan what and when you’ll eat. After bariatric surgery, meal structure is one of the most important factors for long-term success. No matter how many hours of the day a person is awake, it is important to stick to three meals a day with one snack. Gastric sleeve, gastric bypass, gastric band and gastric balloon procedures all prevent you from consuming large portions in a sitting but they do not stop picking and grazing. Snacking frequently adds unnecessary calories that may deter weight loss or even cause weight gain. Plan out the times you will eat each meal around the time you are awake. (See sample plan below.) You won’t be eating breakfast at 7 a.m. like the typical nine-to-fiver will and that is OK. There is no rule that says you can’t eat grilled chicken with veggies for “breakfast” and pack oatmeal and a protein shake to take to work for “dinner.” The more you are able to plan, the easier it may be for you to stick with structure.
Sample meal plan for 11 pm-7 am work schedule with sleep 8 am-3 pm
- Wake up: 3 p.m.
- 3pm: grilled chicken with sautéed spinach
- 8pm: turkey burger with sautéed peppers and onions
- 12am: QuickChek egg and cheese breakfast bowl (17gm protein)
- 4-5am: Protein shake
- Sleep: 8 a.m.
BONUS TIP: Try using a slow cooker so you can have an entire week of meals ready to bring to work or for when you wake up. (Read Meal Planning for a Happier Healthier You for my favorite Slow Cooker Chicken Tortilla Soup and other meal planning tips and recipes)
- Be accountable and mindful. Whenever you eat, have accountability and ask yourself why you’re looking to eat. Even on the night shift, there is always someone who comes in with a dozen doughnuts or leaves a bowl of candy on their desk. Before you eat, ask yourself “Am I hungry?” and if the answer is yes, ask yourself “Is this the best choice I can make?”
- Make wise choices. We all know that planning isn’t always easy or realistic. If you were unable to plan for your night shift, the options for a healthy meal at 3 in the morning are limited. It’s important to make the best decision you can whether you’re at a convenience store or an all-night diner.
Try these best options at:
- Breakfast options: omelets; eggs any style
- Lunch/dinner options: turkey/grilled chicken on a whole wheat wrap; classic hamburger/turkey burger no bun; garden salad with grilled chicken and dressing on the side
- Egg and cheese Wake-Up Wrap; Veggie Egg White Flatbread; Turkey Sausage Wake Up Wrap; Bacon, Egg, & Cheese Wake-Up Wrap
- Breakfast options: Turkey Sausage, Egg White & Cheese English muffin sandwich; Egg and Cheese breakfast bowl
- Lunch/dinner options: All natural turkey and fresh spinach wrap; Premium Chopped Grilled Chicken Salad; All Natural Grilled Chicken Salad; All Natural Chicken Spinach Salad; Southwestern Turkey Salad; Chicken Bacon Club Salad. (dressing on the side, look for low fat or a vinaigrette)
- Breakfast options: Egg Omelet Breakfast Sandwich; Chicken Steak or Turkey Sausage Breakfast Bowls
- Lunch/dinner options: small chili; medium chicken noodle soup; Chicken and Apple Salad (no cheese); Chicken and Veggie Salad (no cheese); Southwest Chicken Salad (no cheese); Half Flatbread Combo: Sante Fe Chicken and small chili (save one for the next meal or the next day)
Snack ideas to pick up at convenience store
- Protein bars, such as Quest, Pure Protein, Think Thin Protein and Fiber Bar
- Emerald nuts 100 calorie pack; mixed nuts (measure out 1 handful)
- Greek yogurt, such as Chobani, Oikos Triple Zero, Dannon Light and Fit
- String cheese with 1 piece of fruit
- Muscle Milk
Working a night shift adds extra challenges if you’ve had gastric bypass, gastric sleeve, gastric band or are working to lose weight through a non-surgical weight loss program, such as gastric balloon. With some planning and mindfulness, you can make good choices and still reach your goals.