Healthy Meal Plan Options for Night Shift Workers

Apr 18, 2020



As a first responder/tactical athlete, shift work is part of the job. Throughout your career, you will have both night and day shifts. Often, you may have be alternating back and forth between the two. A massive challenge you will experience is structuring your nutrition plan to help you to achieve your health and fitness goals.

When you finish reading this article, you will understand why eating is so hard during shift work as well as develop an action plan to get you on track towards your performance goals.



Research Statistics:

In the US, up to 18% of the US work force alternate shift schedules. Recent studies have shown that when compared to non-shift workers, shift worked had a 17% increased risk of all cardiovascular events and close to a 20% increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease 

Another study shows that shift workers had a 9% greater risk for diabetes when compared to non-shift workers.

Additionally a research review discovered that shift-work is linked to high levels of stress, fatigue, burnout, job dissatisfaction, and increased family conflict.

The bottom line is that the human body was not designed for shift work. Yet, our community and family relies on us for their safety. Therefore we must prepare the best we can to combat these statistics by improving our nutrition and physical health so we can be prepared and ready regardless of the time of day.


What is the Circadian Rhythm?

The circadian rhythm is our biological time clock. Many of our natural body processes including sleep, metabolism, gut motility, digestion, and glucose homeostasis are regulated by circadian rhythm.

Our circadian rhythm was designed to match up with the sunlight. When the sun is up, our body is functioning at optimal levels. When the sun is down, we are recovering and sleeping for the next day ahead.

The problem occurs when we have dramatic shifts in the time that we are awake and the time that we are asleep, or have alternating shift work schedules. Now the body doesn't know what to expect.. 

It has been shown in rodents that the circadian rhythm also has a role in the time of day we eat food. One study has even shown that eating food at times that contradict our circadian rhythms can lead to increased weight gain.

More than likely our hunger and satiety signals are not working how they should be when we perform shift work. That is why it is even more important to have a nutrition plan to stick to when you have shift work.

 File:Circadian rhythm in dinoflagellata.svg - Wikimedia Commons


What are the common eating habits of shift workers?

One study discovered that there was so much variety between shift workers, but there was a few common themes:

  1. The time at which shift workers ate was varied based off the hours they worked (unlike non-shift workers who eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner typically around the same time every day)
  2. Shift-type was the biggest indicator on what workers ate
  3. The majority of food was from canteens and cafeterias 
  4. The biggest reason why workers chose to ate was to socialize with other shift workers

As you can see, the common trend with all 4 of these points is that the nutrition/diet is REACTIVE in nature. There is a lack of planning and preparation in many shift workers nutrition selection. 

Failure to plan is planning to fail. 


What we can control:

Look the research is not in our favor here for eating during shift work.. That means we have to step up and take control of our nutrition in order to stay healthy and be there for our community.

Here is the secret... We have to change the way we look at food.

We have to change the reason why we eat food. 

We eat to PERFORM and FUEL our body. We eat to be prepared and effective for when a situation does occur. We are here to protect and serve. Therefore the food choices we make will have a direct relationship with the outcomes of our situations.

We eat and train to be effective. 

So let's revisit those four common themes above and reorganize them to be an effective first responder/tactical athlete.

  1. We eat at scheduled times in order to be effective on shift. We don't have huge meals that limit our ability to perform. We plan our meals ahead of shift schedule knowing exactly what we will eat and when we will eat it.
  2. The foods we eat are based off the foods that we digest well and leave us feeling good. We pick the best choices of food in order to perform our best on shift.
  3. The majority of food we eat was prepared at home. We bring meals and snacks with us to our shift to keep us fueled and ready.
  4. While we may socialize with other first responders/tactical athletes over a meal, we don't let that be an excuse to choose poor foods.

The key here is changing your identity. Become an effective first responder/tactical athlete. Take on this identity and behaviors will change themselves. If you are changing behaviors without changing who you are and what you believe in, you will fail. Instead you must ask yourself "What would an effective first responder do?" and then "Do my decisions and behaviors support who I want to become?"

I could give you a perfect meal plan that fits you and your physique.. but that doesn't get at the root of the problem! That is the band-aide.. The solution is to become the person that eats to perform.


What does an effective first responder eat on shift?

The effective first responder eats to perform. They eat at least 80% whole foods. They prepare their meals ahead of shift and know exactly what they will eat that shift before it starts.

The majority of the meals should be PRE-PLANNED. This should not be based on convenience. It is based on being a hard to kill.

Here is a bullet list of healthy options to eat during shift (80% of diet)

  • Meat + Grain/Potato + Veggies (already cooked ahead of shift)
  • Prepared salad before shift
  • Whole wheat sandwich with lean meat and cheese
  • Whole Grains Bagel with nut butter 
  • Water/Coffee

Quick Grab and Goes (20% of diet)

  • Tuna/salmon packets
  • Fresh Fruit
  • Nuts and Seeds
  • Beef Jerky
  • Lara Bars 
  • Cliff Bars
  • One/Quest Bars



Should I eat different if I work nights vs days?


You should eat the same. You will not eat at normal times (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), but you should eat every 2-5 hours.

Your appetite might not be the same since your circadian rhythm is not functioning like it normally does outside of shift work. But you should still eat a similar amount of calories each day. You may be able to get an additional 250-500 calories on the days you do night shift if you are more active and you are staying up longer, but that should be coming from whole foods as mentioned above.

At least 80% of your diet should be coming from whole foods. Processed foods will leave you unsatisfied and wanting more. With your hunger signals not acting the same as they typically do when you are not on shift work, you are setting yourself up for overeating. 

If you have any questions about how to best organize your nutrition, reach out to us at [email protected]. We are here to help first responders and tactical athletes take control of their lives and become effective!

Thanks for reading!

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