Health and Wellness

Nutrition for night-shift nurses

Pam has worked the night shift for more than 30 years. Over the last 3 years, she has lost 100 lb—and kept it off. She describes the challenging food environment she faces on the night shift: “The cafeteria is closed, so vending machines are the only food source. But they offer only calorie-dense foods, such as chips, crackers, and cookies. My colleagues and patients’ families often bring in muffins, cookies, and other high-calorie goodies and leave them out in plain sight for all to share. Nearly all the restaurants that deliver food past midnight are pizza places. Although they have salads available, everyone else is ordering pizza and subs, and it’s tough to resist the urge.” She usually feels tired and wants the quick energy boost snacks can provide.

Working the night shift is part of nursing—but it’s a risk factor for overweight and obesity. Research shows shiftwork may increase the chance of being overweight or obese by nearly 40% or even more. Some studies have found shiftworkers are 1.3 times more likely to be overweight or obese than day workers. Overweight and obesity increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and diabetes. (See Does exercise help shiftworkers maintain a healthy weight? by clicking the PDF icon above)

Losing weight and keeping it off while working the night shift are possible, but you’ll need to take control of your personal food environment. To manage your weight successfully, take food from home. Relying on the food available at work, even if you eat only small portions of high-calorie foods, will only leave you hungry. Instead, buy nutritious foods, prepare them (if needed), and take them with you.

Shortcuts to eating well

Here are some tips to make your night-shift nutrition plan easier.

  • If you don’t have the time to prepare a meal and pack it for work, buy frozen low-calorie entrées (such as Lean Cuisine® meals) to take to work. Check entrée labels for calories per serving. Ideally, you should consume 350 calories or fewer per meal. If a refrigerator isn’t available at work, look for meals you can store safely at room temperature.
  • Know that protein-rich foods, such as tuna fish, salmon, and chicken, come already cooked in easy-open pouches.
  • Buy precut fruits and vegetables and bags of frozen veg­e­tables you can steam in the micro­wave, which come out perfectly cooked.
  • Be aware that that frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh ones—sometimes even more nutritious.
  • Focus on calories, not a particular type of diet. New research shows the type of diet you eat—low carbohydrate, high carbohydrate, high protein, low fat—doesn’t matter, as long as you reduce your calorie intake and stick with the diet.

Planning your food intake throughout the night shift

Eat protein for your first meal at the beginning of your shift. This will give you long-lasting energy and make you more alert. Then eat small, frequent snacks throughout the night, alternating a lean protein with a carbohydrate, to keep you awake and satisfied. End your shift with a meal that contains carbohydrates to help promote sleep.

Remember—portion size is crucial. As a shift worker, you’re awake more hours than a day worker, so you need to eat more meals. Keeping portions in check will help keep calories under control.


Sample meal plan

First meal: 3 to 4 oz chicken or any lean protein,
plus 2 or 3 cups of vegetables

Snack: piece of fruit

Snack: Greek yogurt

Snack: 1 cup of carrots with a light dressing as a dip

Snack: 3 pieces of string cheese

Last meal: fruit, 1 oz cereal, ¾ cup of skim or 1% milk.

Staying hydrated throughout your shift is crucial. Dehydration can leave you feeling tired, which can cause you to turn to food for an energy boost. Keep a water bottle close by and have a selection of other calorie-free beverages available for variety, if desired. Coffee is fine at the beginning of a shift, but try to avoid caffeine for 5 hours before you go to bed. And keep in mind that adding cream and sugar to coffee can add hundreds of calories. Instead, use skim milk and a no-calorie sweetener.

Shiftwork poses a challenge to weight management. To increase your chance of success, take charge in a situation where many high-calorie foods are readily available. Having a nutrition plan and keeping healthy food options at hand will help you succeed.

Selected references

Eberly R, Feldman H. Obesity and shift work in the general population. Internet J Allied Health Sci Prac. 2010;8(3).

Fan JX, Brown BB, Hanson H, Kowaleski-Jones L, Smith KR, Zick CD. Moderate to vigorous physical activity and weight outcomes: does every minute count? Am J Health Promot. 2013;28(1):41-9.

Pagoto SL, Appelhans BM. A call for an end to the diet debates. JAMA. 2013;310(7):687-8.

Staying healthy when you work the night shift. Value Options; Boston College, Center for Work and Family. 2000. https://www.achievesolutions.net/achievesolutions/en/Content.do?contentId=2992. Accessed January 6, 2014.

Zhao I, Bogossian F, Turner C. A cross-sectional analysis of the association between night-only or rotating shift work and overweight/obesity among female nurses and midwives. J Occup Environ Med. 2012;54(7):834-40.

Nancy Maddox is a dietitian at Winchester Hospital in Medford, Massachusetts.

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One thought on “Nutrition for night-shift nurses”

  1. Joanne says:

    How do you eat like that when you barely get a 30 minute break in a 12 hr shift?

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