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Fitness & Health

07th Aug 2019

Working night shifts? Eat small snacks instead of big meals

'Eat little and often' is a concept popular with bodybuilders, but research also shows it is beneficial if you're working night shifts

Alex Roberts

‘Eat little and often’ is a mantra popular with bodybuilders, but its benefits go far beyond the gym doors

Research shows eating small snacks instead of a big meal is preferential, if you’re working night shifts.

Scientists from the University of South Australia examined whether meal timing could improve how shift workers performed and felt during the evening.

Lead scientist Charlotte Gupta said: “We put them on a shift-work schedule. We had them stay awake overnight and sleep during the day. We had them do a lot of performance tests and give us ratings on how they were feeling.”

There were three groups:

  • One that was given a big meal during the night
  • One that had a smaller snack
  • A third that didn’t eat anything

All three groups consumed sufficient calories during a 24-hour period, but the timing and portion size of their meals varied.

Scientists monitored levels of hunger, gut reaction and tiredness after eating at 12.30am.

Those who had a snack just after midnight felt more awake than those who ate a big meal or nothing at all. The small snack group were also the most satisfied with their amount of food, and had the best mental performance.

Speaking about those who ate small snacks, scientist Gupta said: “They were reacting faster. We had them do a driving simulator and they were driving safer. So, there were fewer crashes and they were staying in the speed limit with that small snack, opposed to the big meal.”

Over three million people in the UK work night shifts – and that figure is only going to rise.

Why your night shift nutrition is important

Gupta said: “In today’s 24/7 economy, working the night shifts is increasingly common, with many industries – healthcare, aviation, transport and mining – requiring employees to work around the clock.”

You are conditioned to avoid eating at night, which makes nutrition for shift-workers a difficult concept to grasp. However, according to this research, small feeds could well be the way to go.

Gupta says: “We know that many nightshift workers eat on-shift to help them stay awake. But until now, no research has shown whether this is good or bad for their health and performance.”

The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that regulates when people sleep, eating habits and digestion, body temperature and other bodily functions.

Scientist Gupta says the lab now plans to test what type of snacks are best for shift workers. Cravings are likely to be higher when awake at night.

“We gave people a muesli bar and an apple, which is a fairly healthy snack, but we know that many shift workers are limited in what they can buy, or are getting food from vending machines,” she said.

“There’s also a craving during the middle of the night for chocolate or something a bit more exciting to eat.”

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