Shift Workers' Nutrition (and Why Sugar is The Villain)

Give your body a sugar boost without overstepping the boundary of a healthy glucose level, so you can move away from the feeling of the "crash" after eating sugary treats for that energy surge.

But all too often, sugar is all around you. In the office. In the car. Gifts from friends, at parties. In the break room.

Sometimes we just aren't sure what better choices look like. Or we didn't have time to bring any healthier snacks with us to work. All we're left with is fast food, cafeteria food, or worse, vending machines.... this is what you see a lot of the time...

 Constantly temped?

 When you’re on a night shift, you know that you need sustained energy, but you often use pop, chips and chocolate (whatever is quick and nearby!) to get through your day with energy (or is it night? Who's counting at this point?)

However, you also know that crashing your blood sugar is not healthy for the body long-term. It’s hard on the liver, and hard on your waistline.

Let’s talk about the anti-nutrient that is the villain here.

Sugar is really highly overused in our diets (coffee, baking, bread, alcohol etc) but we have to tip the scales - it needs to be in very low amounts in our diet. White sugar. It's in pop, candy, baking - anything that's white - flour or sugar. Refined sugar acts like a drug in the body. In fact, it affects the very same brain chemicals that morphine, heroin and amphetamines do.

What this means is, as you may know, you can become addicted to sugar. If you do eat sugar you get your “high” and do temporarily have more energy for your work. But it actually creates unstable blood sugar (not good for managing weight) and low serotonin (not good for staying happy.)

Unstable blood sugar - blood sugar levels rise higher when a refined carb like chocolate, pasta, cookies, etc. are consumed. This causes a release of adrenalin because the body interprets this high surge of blood sugar as a signal that you’re in physical danger (ie: flight or fight response). The adrenalin signals the pancreas to release insulin – but it actually pumps out more than you need. The body thinks you need this amount to get the sugar out of your blood and into your cells in order to sustain your energy to the flight or fight response. As the sugar is removed from the blood the “rush” of sugar high is quickly replaced by the crash of your rapidly lowered blood sugar level. This is sometimes called hypoglycemia.

Low Serotonin - Serotonin is responsible for stabilizing our mood and making us feel calm, relaxed and optimistic. Some pretty important values for a nursing shift! People who consume refined sugar generally have low serotonin levels. Often they have trouble making good decisions because of fuzzy thinking. That can make it harder for you to resist cravings.

Eating a diet high in sugar (NOT fruit sugar, but white sugar as in donuts, cake, cookies and most packaged foods) and refined flour, alcohol and junk foods makes your sugar sensitivity – and your moods – out of control. I researched nurses' nutrition years ago, and 95% of the nurses I spoke to had the same major complaint – tired and needing energy. PLUS it was becoming increasingly hard for them to lose weight!

So by now, you are probably ready to hear the steps you can take to boost your energy levels without gaining weight for a GREAT night shift:

1) Note how you feel after eating specific foods.

Does that doughnut, candy or chocolate bar really help your energy levels, or do you crash an hour or three later? Would you rather take a nap than take your break?

Starting to pay attention to the effect of food on our body can do wonders for our awareness of our choices. More awareness leads to different (often healthier!) choices. Since we know we are what we eat, we can start applying that knowledge to our reality by listening to our body.

2) Eat breakfast everyday – ideally you should break your fast within 30 minutes of rising.

Breakfast means "breaking the fast" so whether you are breaking it in the morning like everyone else, or in the evening, its still considered breakfast - even if its at 4 pm. Also, make sure your breakfast (whenever that may be) contains some protein. This doesn’t just mean meat- protein is also achieved through simple food combining like having vegetables with grains, or beans with grains. Having a stirfry of chickpeas and greens with rice is a complete protein meal. This gives you all the amino acids and also tons more energy than having a steak. This saves you money, as well!

A starchy, carby breakfast will give you higher serotonin levels.

What does this look like? Here are some examples.

Positively Protein breakfast

  • 2 free range eggs with veggies (raw or cooked or leftovers)

  • 1 cup cottage cheese with sprouted whole grain toast & butter

  • Brown rice pudding with raisins + coconut milk

  • Whole grain crackers with hummus

  • Roasted sweet potato with almond butter + cinnamon

Starchy Serotonin breakfast

  • Roasted potatoes and carrots

  • Roasted yams or potatoes with butter + cinnamon/sea salt

  • Rye bread toast with peanut, almond or cashew butter

  • Oatmeal with fruit

3) Switch gradually from simple carbohydrates to complex carbohydrates in the form of low GI fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Limit your intake of these to 3 or 4 servings per day (a serving is generally ½ cup of grains or starchy vegetables) and for fruit is generally a handful or small piece of fruit. Eat low glycemic fruits such as fresh, raw apples, peaches, grapefruit, plums and pears, raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. Berries are especially low in their Gylcemic Load.

Complex carbohydrates that give you energy without spiking your blood sugars:

  • Oatmeal + Fresh fruit

  • Fresh vegetables & hummus

  • Grains + Vegetables (rice + veg stirfry)

  • Grains + Beans (rice + chickpea/black bean/lentil mix)

  • Rye or sourdough bread with butter

  • Quinoa with greens + vegetables (beans….peas)

  • Sweet potatoes

Want a quicker but natural energy spike?

Choose these instead of pop or chocolate on days you haven’t prepared a meal or proper snacks!

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  • Dates

  • Figs

  • Fruit shake

  • fruit water (fresh organic lemon, pineapple, raspberries in water bottle)

  • handful of nuts and seeds with a piece of fruit

  • green tea and homemade muffin with honey (we like natural sweeteners, and local honey is great for your immunity!)

  • Bliss Balls rolled in coconut

  • hot air popped popcorn with honey, butter + cinnamon (real cinnamon helps balance your blood sugar) [The Best Cinnamon You Can Buy]

  • fruit leathers


Now that you can start working on fueling your body properly, you can get out there with more sustained energy and rock it! Hope this helps you! Here’s more resources:

[5 Reasons You Need Whole Foods]

[What to Do When There’s Sugar Everywhere]

[Ignoring Diets & Trends Saves You Time & Energy]