By Alex McCoy, Contributing Writer, Owner of Fit Travel Life
When I started working night shift as a new grad, I thought I knew exactly how to tackle the crazy hours. I had done one night per week during nursing school as a nursing tech, so I was sure I would transition into the world of full-time nights without a problem. I was sure I could maintain a healthy lifestyle all while being the super-nurse who worked the crazy hours.
Wrong. So, so wrong.
About six months into my night shift career, I realized something had to change. There was nothing “super” about how I was feeling thanks to the typical triad that befalls all-new night shift workers: tired, overweight, and poor diet. Despite my good intentions going in, night shift had gotten the better of me and my health.
Like many people, switching to days was not an option. I was making meager new grad nurse wages in rural Missouri, and I was also attempting to save for my wedding. I knew I could not afford to take a day shift position even if there had been one available because I desperately needed that night shift differential. I had to figure out how to manage my current situation and night shift cravings in a healthy and positive way.
Lucky for you guys, after three years of working night shift, I have built up an arsenal of tools to help me attack my night shift cravings head-on. These tips even helped me lose weight and compete in a bodybuilding competition while working nights. I say this to let you know that it is possible to make healthy changes while working nights, along with achieving intense goals along the way.
To start, you need to have a plan, and a commitment to change. There is a lot of mental toughness that is required for changing habits while on a night shift, but by taking baby steps and implementing each of these tips as you can, I know anyone can change their lifestyle and habits while working third shift.
Know how much your body needs
Personally, I am a fan of counting macros, but if you don’t want to be that specific, you should at least know your body’s BMR, or basal metabolic rate. There are lots of free calculators online. This will give you a rough idea of how much food you need to eat in 24 hours.
When I first started working nights, I was actually undereating because it drastically affected my appetite. By having a goal for my eating habits, it helped me become more structured and feel better overall when I was getting the right amount of food for my body.
Plan what to eat the WHOLE time you’ll be awake
Night shift workers are often awake for more than 24 hours at a time. Unfortunately, our bodies will still burn the same amount of calories they normally would in 24 hours. This means you need to plan for the entire time you’ll be awake. As a new nurse, I would often eat throughout the day like I wasn’t on the night shift, and then eat again at night like normal. Now, I make sure I eat volume foods that are lower in calories to make sure I don’t end up consuming way more than my body can burn in 24 hours.
Find staple low-calorie beverages
This is not to say ditch the energy drinks and coffee. I get it, night shift is almost impossible to survive without caffeine. But if you drink four cups of coffee with sugary creamers all night, add up how much sugar and fat you’re consuming via coffee. There are tons and tons of low-calorie drink options out there, so find one that gives you the caffeine boost you need without loading you up with excess calories.
Figure out if you’re a snacker or a three-meals-a-day person
Weight loss or weight management will always be based on calories in versus calories out. I was successful losing weight on nights without specific meal timing, so I ate based on what kept me sane and happy. Ultimately, you have to find a pattern that can be maintained long-term in order to see change.
If that means six small snacks throughout your shift, great. If you’d rather sit and have a big “dinner” (or whatever you like to call your 2 a.m. meal), then be conscious of that and try to stay away from snacking throughout the night. Find a pattern that keeps you satisfied without overeating.
If you’re looking to kick off your healthy eating habits and tackle night shift cravings, this is a simple recipe that’s also a favorite: Easy Banana Pancakes.
Bring lots of options to work
With your body being out of whack already from working a reverse shift, it can be hard to predict what you will want at 3 a.m. when hunger or a craving strikes. I suggest bringing a mix of sweet and savory snacks that will keep you from running to the vending machine or cafeteria (if that’s an option where you work).
Some of my favorite night shift staples that satisfy sweet and savory cravings are; rice cakes with peanut butter, shredded crockpot chicken with salsa, plain Greek yogurt with a no-calorie sweetener, and rice cake chips.
All of these tools took me several months to implement in a way that helped me lose weight and then maintain it. I actually struggled more on my day shift assignment because I had gotten the night shift rhythm down to a science!
Working nights is not the easiest experience. It is hard on your body, mentally and physically. But by focusing on the things you can control, you can still reach health and fitness goals while working a night shift. By taking control of your diet while on night shift you can take the first step towards a more pleasant experience as a third-shifter, and start to feel better about yourself as well.
Alex McCoy is a pediatric registered nurse from Kansas City, Missouri. She currently works as a travel nurse and started Fit Travel Life as a way to share resources and tips for staying healthy while on the road working long hours. Alex travels with her husband, Keaton, who is a travel physical therapist, and their cat Autumn.
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