As shift workers we’re certainly prone to eating all of the wrong types of foods as we often feel too tired to cook thanks to a lifestyle dictated by ongoing sleep deprivation, particularly when we’ve experienced a run of early or night shifts.
But is your shift work diet SAD or is it happy?
If you’re wondering what I mean by this I’m actually referring to the Standard American Diet (hence the acronym SAD) – or in my case, a Standard Australian Diet which is pretty much the same thing.
However depending on how you answer this question, it’s going to play a key in how healthy your immune system is which is an ongoing struggle for most shift workers.
If you answered “yes” to having a SAD (which most shift workers do), it’s important to recognise that the Standard American/Australian Diet is high in Omega 6’s which include saturated fats, trans fatty acids, and arachidonic acid which can result in inflammation, one of the leading causes of most degenerative diseases (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition*).
In contrast, a diet high in Omega 3 fatty acids or Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s) can provide us with a healthy immune system as they support the healthy function of our cells. A depleted immune system also makes us more susceptible to injury, allergies and infection.
Foods containing Omega 3’s include fish and fish oils which are a source of long chain fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) which contain anti-inflammatory properties which can help to reduce risk factors associated with hypertension, high triglycerides, and atherosclerosis (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition*).
The problem we have today is that the typical SAD or Western diet contains far more omega-6’s than it does omega 3’s.
Unfortunately because of our haphazard lifestyle, shift workers are much more likely to adopt the super-convenient-but-very-unhealthy Standard American Diet.
It’s also important to understand that when you’re feeding your body suboptimal nutrition day after day, year after year, it’s going to wear you down and lead to nutritional deficiencies which will negatively affect your immune system and make you less robust to fight off any infections.
So how can you adopt a much happier shift work diet?
By simply replacing your diet with foods which are high in omega 6’s (fast foods – fries, burgers, chicken nuggets, hash browns, cakes, pastries, muffins, sundaes and vegetable oils) with those which contain more omega 3’s (flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, sardines, salmon, mackerel, eggs, chicken and beef).
I use the word ‘replace’ instead of remove because we shouldn’t be removing things from our diet without replacing them with something else – preferably with much healthier options! The word ‘remove’ can also lead to feelings of restriction – as though we’re missing out which is rarely sustainable in the long term.
So start replacing your SAD diet with one which is rich in Essential Fatty Acids or Omega 3’s, and your immune system and overall shift work health will be much happier as a result!
*Simopoulos, A 1999, ‘Essential fatty acids in health and chronic disease’, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 70, no. 3, pp. 560-569.