Back in my Uni days of studying to become a nutritionist, I remember overhearing a discussion between a lecturer and student about what would be the ideal meal option for someone who work’s the night shift.
The lecturer’s reply was:
“Just get them to flip their meals around. As in have their big meal around midnight and 1am”.
The thing is, that never really sat right with me.
Given the functionality of our circadian rhythm varies enormously between that of the day versus the night, I instinctively knew that nocturnal food intake, especially in large quantities, was bound to cause havoc on our digestive system. Not ideal, given most shift workers are plagued by gastrointestinal complaints at the best of times!
However, it doesn’t stop at the digestive system.
It can affect our cognition, amongst other things, which if your work involves making complex decisions, operating machinery or performing surgery, can be extremely important.
This is because each time we eat, blood is diverted away from our brain and into our digestive tract to help support digestion.
In a small, but clinically relevant randomised controlled trial published in the journal Chronobiology International (2019), a comparison was made between having a main meal versus a small snack, or not eating at all and how that influenced alertness during and after night shift.
Throughout the night they underwent various tests to assess behavioural alertness, reaction time, memory, along with completing 40-minutes in a driving simulator.
Those who ate a small snack, compared to a bigger meal, or nothing at all …
– Spent more time driving within the speed limit and sticking inside the lane,
– Had a faster reaction time and enhanced memory.
So based on this small but clinically relevant study, from an alertness perspective, I’d recommend consuming a small serve of food versus anything large or heavy (or not eating at all), when working throughout the night.
Ideally things like soups, stews, broths or a small serve from a plant-based slow cooker meal are great as they are easy to digest, nutrient-dense and have minimal impact on blood sugar levels.
Gupta, C, Centofanti, S, Dorrian, J, Coates, A, Stepien, J, Kennaway, D, Wittert, G, Heibronn, L, Catcheside, P, Noakes, M, Coro, D, Chandrakumar, D & Banks, S 2019, ‘Alterning meal timing to improve cognitive performance during simulated nightshifts’, Chronobiology International, vol. 36, no. 12, pp. 1691-1713.
Gupta, C, Centofanti, S, Dorrian, J, Coates, A, Stepien, J, Kennaway, D, Wittert, G, Heilbronn, L, Catcheside, P, Noakes, M, Coro, D, Chandrakumar, D & Banks, S 2019, ‘Subjective hunger, gastric upset, and sleepiness in response to altered meal timing during simulated shift work’, Nutrients, vol. 11, no. 6, pp. 1-24.