Tips for Eating Healthy on Night Shift

Eating healthy and even losing weight while working night shift is possible, but it does take effort. Read on for tips on how to plan for nutritious meals when working overnight. Nurses Stress 101 Article


Tips for Eating Healthy on Night Shift

As nurses, we often champion good nutrition for our patients. Unfortunately, we are known to fall short when it comes to our own eating habits. Research shows your risk of being overweight or obese increases by 40% or more if you work night shift. Studies also suggest working the graveyard shift may play a role in the development of certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses.

Night Shift Problems

Nurses working night shift face several challenges when it comes to personal well-being. We experience a significant disruption in our natural sleep cycle, which can lead to a sluggish metabolism and weight gain. It is definitely a challenge (if not impossible) to find healthy food choices in a fast food drive thru or vending machine during your 2 AM lunch break. And what about exercise? Good luck finding a safe place to exercise after dark and in the wee hours of the morning. Once you clock out, it usually takes your last bit of energy to drive home, take care of any urgent matters and make it to bed.

Meal Planning is Key

Eating healthy and even losing weight while working night shift is possible, but it does take effort. Planning is key since your best route to good nutrition on nights is to brown bag meals and snacks from home. Read on for a few good tips to help get you started.

Eat Before Your Shift

On night shift, your first meal of the day should be your biggest and eaten before you report to work. To keep your energy levels up, start your day with plenty of protein from lean meats, fish or other sources. Eating before your shift will also help you stay in line with your natural circadian rhythm.

Be Snack Ready

Having snacks readily available is your best defense against the lure of your vending machine’s high calorie and high fat goodies. Examples of good snacks include- fruit with low fat cheese or nuts with low fat yogurt. The Dieticians of Canada Healthy Snacks for Adults factsheet is a great resource for planning your workday snacks.

Eat Less More Frequently

After eating your first meal, eat small frequent snacks throughout the night. You should alternate a protein with a carbohydrate to keep you alert and satisfied.

Sample Eating Plan
First Meal

3 to 4 oz of chicken or any lean protein

2-4 cups of frozen or fresh cooked vegetables

Snack 1 Apple or other fruit
Snack 2 Greek yogurt with handful of nuts
Snack 3 1 cup raw veggies with lite dressing as dip
Snack 4 3 pieces of string cheese
Final Meal 1 oz cereal with skim milk and fruit

Eating a large meal during the graveyard shift can cause gas, bloating, heartburn or constipation. Once your shift is over, eating a light meal that includes carbohydrates will help you fall and stay asleep.

Pause for Meals

Many of us are guilty of mindless snacking as we chart or go about our busy shift. It is important to pause, sit down and take time to eat at a relaxed pace. As nurses, this is not always an easy thing to do, but hopefully, you will be able to carve out a few minutes to recharge.

Avoid the “Entertainment” Snack

When nurses begin to yawn and eyes grow heavy, It is common practice to visit the vending machine. However, snacking to boost energy levels does not work well and actually contributes to weight gain. Instead, try a ten minute power nap, a short walk or stretching to keep drowsiness at bay.

Beware of Caffeine

Yes, coffee and other caffeinated drinks can help you stay alert in the wee hours of the morning. But, many of us exceed the recommended daily limit of 400mg of caffeine. Caffeine also hangs out in your system for up to eight hours and can affect your ability to sleep. A good rule of thumb is to switch to decaffeinated drinks (water, juice, herbal tea) at least four hours before going to bed.

Outside of Work

How you treat your body outside of work will greatly impact your ability to stay healthy on night shift. Practice a healthy lifestyle by exercising, setting regular meal times and adopt good sleep hygiene. Also, don’t forget to step out into the sun to keep your vitamin D levels up.

Want to Learn More and Earn CEUs?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has a free on-line 2-part CEU module available on their website: NIOSH Training for Nurses on Shift Work and Long Work Hours. The training provides education about the health and safety risks associated with long hours and shift work and how to reduce these risks.

Have any meal tips and tricks worked for you? We would love to read about them!


Nutrition for night-shift nurses


J. Adderton MSN has over 20 years experience in clinical leadership, staff development, project management and nursing education.

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Specializes in New Critical care NP, Critical care, Med-surg, LTC.

I know that nutrition and diet can be very difficult to paint with a broad brush. What works well for one person may not work at all for another. I have been on night shift over three and a half years. Before coming to a night shift position I had worked out six days a week for about six years. I was in pretty decent shape. But I left my old gym and when I started night shift, none of the class times at a new gym worked for me. So, the gym fell by the wayside. Then I fell into bad eating habits and I gained about 20 pounds over the course of my first year and a half yuck. I was annoyed by the pounds but not really willing to put in much effort for a while. Then last Spring my son mentioned he wanted us to hike Mt Washington. No way I could haul my fat butt up a mountain. 

I found intermittent fasting. I follow a 16-18 hour daily fast that works out well for me. I eat all of my food between noon and 6pm usually. If I'm working back to back shifts, sometimes I only eat dinner. This has worked out well for me. I've lost almost all of the 20 pounds I had gained. I have more energy and I recently started working out again which has also increased my energy levels. My schedule also means I don't eat on night shift. The only good thing about COVID was that we couldn't have any food to share anyway, so I was firmly entrenched in the habit before work birthday parties could threaten to derail me. The good thing about not eating on night shift is that it doesn't matter if my shift gets really busy and I don't get my break, I wasn't going to eat anyway. I try to stay hydrated, although I'm not good at that either. 

With intermittent fasting because I'm not eating as much I find that I'm more conscious of the things I do eat. I have less overall junk food and I try to prepare healthier meals for my family. While it may not work for everyone, it's been a great lifestyle move for me. 

If you work nights and have a commute, plan to eat a banana or an apple during your commute. You can safely eat them while driving and it will blunt that morning hunger. You will get a serving or two of fruit and fiber, the crunch and natural sugar will perk you up, and you will be less likely to hit the drive-thru on your way home.