The shift work diet


Being a shift worker comes with many challenges when it comes to figuring out what to do with your diet. Shift work and rotating rosters make it almost impossible to get enough sleep and into a regular routine with eating and exercise habits.

In a study by I.Kawachi 1995, found that shift workers have higher cholesterol levels and stress hormones and therefore higher risk of heart disease due to poor sleep and eating habits. Shift work isn’t exactly good for your health, but unfortunately the 24hour work cycle that currently exists isn’t exactly going to change any time soon.

If you need more help with sleep have a look at this post on 7 tips for a good nights sleep.

How to plan your shift work meals

Generally most shift workers skip breakfast because they find it hard to stomach food so early in the morning. However skipping breakfast has shown to decrease the metabolism for the rest of the day. Therefore it’s imperative that you have a small amount, at least 15g, of carbohydrate to get the metabolism fired up and to provide enough energy to function through the early morning.

If you wake up at 4am then having a single piece of fruit will suffice, especially if you’re not hungry. A more balanced substantial breakfast (like breakfast pudding) should follow 3 hours later at a more reasonable hour and when your hunger is fired up. Each meal or snack should occur in 3-4 hours intervals depending on your level of hunger.

It’s also possible to swap meal times around, there is nothing wrong with having dinner early if this is the time when hunger strikes. Maintaining body weight or weight loss is not dependent on meal timing, more so it’s the total energy intake of the entire day.

The below example meal plan is for a young female shift worker. I have substituted the usual mid afternoon mealtime snack for a larger dinner meal and moved it to a light snack just before bedtime.

Shift worker suggested meal plan

Snack Breakfast Snack Lunch Dinner Snack
4 am 7am 10am 1pm 4pm 8pm
1 pear Oats with skim milk & strawberries Raw unsalted mixed nuts and yogurt Wholemeal bread wrap with 1 egg , ¼ avocado & salad Mexican enchiladas with mixed veg Blueberries with yogurt & Omega-3 fish oil tablet

Shift worker diet tips

As a shift worker your hormone levels will always be in a stressed state. This is because your sleep patterns (circadian rhythm) is disrupted. This means your hormones cortisol and adrenaline will be raised. Cortisol is an appetite stimulator and also promotes fat storage and inflammation. Adrenaline chews up blood sugars causing blood sugar levels to drop and this stimulates sugar or carbohydrate cravings.

For shift workers the best type of diet to follow is a low GI and high protein diet. Low GI diets make you feel fuller for longer and help regulate blood sugar levels better. Low GI foods are whole grain and whole foods. Protein foods also promote satiety making you feel full and less likely to overeat. Protein is also important for muscle repair and growth if exercising, this is important when you start an exercise program. Exercise is good for your health and will help mitigate higher cholesterol levels.

If you’re a shift worker you still need to follow the general guidelines to healthy eating; 2 serves of fruit, 5 serves of vegetables, 2 serves of dairy and 1-2 serves of lean meats per day. This ensures you will get enough essential nutrients such as iron, calcium and fibre through out the day and night.

Get creative, often during night shift lollies, energy drinks, chocolate, chips and an endless supply of coffee is served, but why don’t you lead the way and change this?

Think about taking dried fruit and nuts to snack on, fresh fruit to curb sugar cravings and vegetable sticks to munch on when you are feeling sleepy.

It’s also important to get a good intake of omega-3 foods through nuts, seeds, tuna and salmon. Omega-3 is an anti-inflammatory, it aids with weight loss, reduces risk of heart disease and aids brain function.

Shift working & exercise

The best time to exercise is when you can easily fit it into your lifestyle. Obviously exercising before work at 4am would be crazy, exercising after work would be more manageable. The easiest thing to do is build it into your daily routine. Immediately after work, head straight to the gym or to do your exercise at home. This is so you can finish working out before you head home to relax.

Alternatively if you start work at 11pm at night, going to the gym before you start work might be a better option. The minimum amount of exercise sessions should be 3x week for at least 30min in duration. Preferably sessions should be spread out throughout the week e.g (Mon, Wed, Fri) so there is enough rest and muscle recovery between sessions.

Alternatively if you’re feeling really exhausted you can save the workouts for your days off. For example you can do 2 x exercise sessions on a Saturday morning and afternoon, and then 1 x exercise session on Sunday afternoon. Doing something is always better than nothing and you will still get health benefits even though timing is not ideal.

For time poor people a full body circuit-training program works the best. This is so you can combine cardiovascular and strength training within a 30minute workout. I have included the program below. Of course a light warm up like walking should be done pre routine and stretching should be performed post routine as a cool down.

Example of 30minute circuit workout for shift workers 

Super set (AB)


Body part


Exercise Duration
A Legs & cardio Jump squats 3 sets x 10-12 reps
B Chest Push ups 3 sets x 10-12 reps
A Back Seated row 3 sets x 10-12 reps
B Cardio High knee running 30 sec
A Triceps Dips 3 sets x 10-12 reps
B Cardio Step ups 30 sec
A Bicep & Legs Walking lunges with bicep curl 3 sets x 10-12 reps
B Cardio Star jumps 30 sec
A Shoulder press 3 sets x 10-12 reps
B Abdominals Leg lifts 3 sets x 10-12 reps
A Legs Jump lunges 3 sets x 10-12 reps
B Core abdominals Hover /plank 60 sec



I.Kawachi et al. Prospective study of shift work and risk of coronary heart disease in women 1995. Website


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