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Managing a Healthy Balanced Diet Whilst Working Shift Patterns

Thank you to Orla McDaid for kindly writing this insightful blog for our staff.


In the health sector shift work is more common however, to what extent does working shift patterns affect our diet?

The current UK guidelines recommend following a regular eating pattern that incorporates all the major food groups balanced in line with ‘The Eatwell Guide’ (https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-eatwell-guide).  


However shift patterns often means individuals struggle to form a routine.

Research shows shift workers are at risk of a higher Body Mass Index (BMI), developing Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease.

Specific nutritional guidelines for those who work shift patterns is difficult to recommend, however there are key area’s which shift workers can focus on in order to try to maintain a healthy and balanced diet.


  • Before your shift – Prior to starting your shift it would be a good idea to eat a large balanced meal consisting of a combination of carbohydrate and protein along with vegetables, as this will fill you up.  Because shift work is a factor in the timing of food consumption, and typically there is a lack of good food facilities at night, this may cause difficulties in establishing good eating patterns. Your best bet is to plan ahead and bring your lunch and snacks with you. You could take some leftovers from the meal you ate before starting your shift in a tupperware box. Alternatively you could bring a prepared salad or sandwich (something relatively light) so you are guaranteed to have a healthy balanced meal waiting for you on your break - especially if options are low in your vicinity.


  • Snacks - avoiding fizzy drinks, crisps or biscuits will help with fatigue levels as even though they provide an initial energy buzz, the crash is quick to follow and you will end up feeling very lethargic. Ideal snacks include a high protein yoghurt with fruit, mixed nuts or a fruit/nut granola bar.



  • After your shift - You’ve just got home and are in dire need of some shut eye but are a little peckish; avoiding a large meal before going to bed is advisable, instead opting for a light snack. This means you won’t wake up hungry but also won’t be sleeping on a full stomach. Our metabolism slows down during sleep so sleeping on a full stomach is not ideal. Snacks such as a small bowl of fibre rich cereal or some wholegrain toast with hummus is a good option here.


  • Hydration – This is key to managing shift patterns. Dehydration causes fatigue and lack of concentration. Bring a steel or paraben free plastic bottle with you and keep sipping from this throughout the day. Putting reminders on your phone or FitBit to keep drinking can be a useful tip. Ideally we should be aiming for around 8-10 glasses of water per 24hour period as a general guide although this can differ from person to person. If you don’t like water on it’s own, adding some sugar free dilutant or even fresh fruit to the water can add some flavour.


  • Vitamin D – New research suggests that we are not getting enough Vitamin D. It is an essential vitamin for everyone to help develop and maintain healthy bones, teeth and muscles. The main source of Vitamin D is from sunlight and the chances are if you work shift patterns you are getting even less sunlight and are at higher risk of deficiency. Taking an over the counter supplement of 10 micrograms per day especially during winter months should be considered whilst trying to get more Vitamin D in the diet.  Foods such as tinned oily fish and fortified spread and breakfast cereals contains some Vitamin D.



  • Caffeine – Many people do not realise that caffeine can stay in your system for up to 5 hours (or in some cases even longer) so if you have a cup of tea or coffee half way through your shift, the likelihood of this affecting your sleep is higher. Caffeine isn’t just found in tea and coffee, it can also be found in some chocolate and diet drinks so be sure to check the label or just avoid these foods and drinks. Decaf tea and coffee may be a good option and still counts toward your daily fluid intake.


Remember: Preparation is KEY when you work shift patterns and will go a long way in ensuring you are working toward a more balanced diet.

Orla McDaid (Nutr; BSc, MSc)


***Disclaimer: always seek medical advice from your GP before starting a new diet, exercise regime or medication. The information in these articles is not a substitute for advice from a health professional. 




Orla is a qualified Nutritionist (BSc; Nutr; Afn) specialising in Health Promotion and Public Health (MSc). She has a previous history of working within the private healthcare sector for a number of years as a Health and Wellbeing Adviser for Bupa and has also worked in the Public Health Service within the Promoting Wellbeing Division. Currently, she is based in the Voluntary Sector in a Health Promoting capacity.