Forever on the go? Wrapped up indoors WFH? Work anti-social hours? And now for the most important question – are you tailoring your nutrition correctly for your working day?
Admittedly this can feel hard to do, whether we're strapped for time or can't think of something healthy to make for lunch everyday. But new research suggests we're keen to get better at it, with searches like 'night shift healthy food' and 'desk lunch' increasing by 100% and 84% respectively in the past month.
While the structure of three-meals-a-day started in the 17th century, sedentary jobs and shift working is more prominent in the 21st-century, meaning the way we eat to match needs to catch up.
So, helped by analysing scientific journals and the needs of the four key shift patterns – office-based day workers (and WFH), highly active day workers, night workers and on-call workers – a nutritionist has revealed the key focus foods to help each group maintain optimal health and wellbeing.
Optimal diet for an office day worker
This should prioritise lighter and more frequent meals to counteract the effects of prolonged sitting.
"Research revealed that people in low-activity desk jobs would benefit most from eating four smaller but more frequent meals during the working day, with a total of six meals daily," says Kyle Crowley, nutrition and food science expert at Protein Works.
"This is because it will help provide a constant supply of energy and maintain your blood sugar levels when focusing for extended periods of screen time. It is gentler on the gut and digestive system when sitting at a desk all day. Also, eating six times a day has been scientifically found to help lower cholesterol levels, which people in sedentary and stressful jobs are more likely to be exposed to."
Meal and snack inspiration for office workers:
Smaller Breakfasts: Yoghurt and fruit (strawberries/apples). A small bowl of protein porridge (can be vegan) topped with fruit. A quick vegetable omelette (onions, kale, tomatoes). Avocado on toast
Lighter lunches: Fatty fish with leafy greens. Chickpea salad with vegetables
Additional Snacks: Sugar-free nootropics are also great to include to avoid those dreaded sugar and caffeine crashes
What if you're WFH?
"Similarly to office-based workers, people who work from home should opt for small but frequent meals throughout the working day to retain productivity, energy and focus," says Crowley. "People who work from home have access to a kitchen making it much easier for them to make a wider variety of food and snacks. This is ideal as it allows workers to easily graze while working, avoiding an afternoon feast which is more tempting in office environments."
The nutrition and food science expert also points out people working from home should eat in a way that is kinder to their digestive system because "sitting for prolonged periods can promote slower digestion and circulation, making it harder for the body to absorb and transport important nutrients".
"When working from home, people might want to take the opportunity to get away from their desks and spend their afternoon breaks on the move," Crowley recommends. "This means they need energy not only to stay focused and motivated throughout the day but to get their bodies moving. Slow-releasing energy foods such as bananas, avocados and seeds, such as pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds and linseeds can help with this."
Meal and snack inspiration for work-from-home workers:
Breakfast options: Protein porridge, leafy green smoothie, yoghurt and berries
Lunch: Vegetable soup, avocado on sourdough
Snacks: Nuts, seeds, fruits, berries
Optimal diet for highly active day workers
This should be the most traditional, with a focus on filling breakfasts and high energy, anti-inflammatory and flavonoid-rich foods.
"Those working in more active and physically demanding roles like waitressing, retail and construction may benefit from a more traditional approach. Consuming three well-balanced meals daily, focusing on a substantial breakfast packed with protein, fibre, and complex carbohydrates, can prove instrumental in curbing hunger, stabilising sugar levels, and ensuring one has a steady supply of energy throughout the day," Crowley explains.
"Not only this, but by focusing on foods with anti-inflammatory and flavonoid-rich properties, workers can help to mitigate the side effects of prolonged standing which can affect your overall health and well-being over time."
Meal and snack inspiration for highly active workers:
Breakfast options: Protein porridge topped with nuts, fresh fruit (apples, berries, peaches), and/or peanut or almond butter. Poached eggs and avocado on toast or scrambled eggs with vegetables (Kale)
Light Lunches: Tuna with lettuce, celery, and lemon dressing, a chicken (or veggie or vegan alternative) sandwich on high-fibre bread
Snacks: A handful of nuts, bananas, protein bars, berries and dark chocolate. Sugar-free nootropics may also help avoid any caffeine crashes if coffee is a regular go-to
Optimal diet for night shift workers
To avoid disrupting our 24-hour internal circadian clock, workers of the late hours should consume a full meal before their shift and snack on immune-boosting foods.
"Those working night shifts should have a large high-satiety meal when they wake up before their shift, followed by light grazing on high-immune boosting snacks throughout their shift – enough to keep them satisfied but with minimal disruption to their circadian rhythm. Finished with a light but filling sleep-promoting meal before bed," advises Crowley.
"This is because night shift workers should aim to remain full and cause as little disruption to their circadian rhythm as possible when on shift in the early hours of the morning. Disturbing the circadian rhythm by eating larger meals in the early hours has been found to cause issues with sleep and overall wellbeing. Also, science reveals night shift workers are also more prone to infections & illnesses like the flu so snacking on immune-boosting foods can help mitigate this issue."
Meal and snack inspiration for night shift workers:
Breakfast options: Hearty meal full of high-satiety food, such as eggs, oats, avocado, and nuts
Dinner: Light but filling sleep-promoting meal, such as turkey with vegetables or fish with brown rice
Snacks: Immune-boosting snacks like nuts, seeds, shredded chicken, and avocado
Optimal diet for on-call shift workers
Firefighters, doctors, and IT professionals often need to eat quickly and when they can – but they should make sure meals and snacks are easy to digest and keep them full.
"Planning ahead is crucial for healthy eating as an on-call shift worker – planning meals and snacks ahead of time ensures that you have something healthy to eat right before or when you’re called in," says Crowley.
"Choose easy-to-digest foods such as simple carbs, yoghurt, bananas and cooked vegetables – avoid raw veggies as they’re more difficult to digest. Lean protein sources, such as chicken, fish, or tofu will also help you to stay energised."
Meal and snack inspiration for on-call workers:
Breakfast options: Oats and bananas or eggs and toast
Lunches: White bread sandwich with a lean protein and other ingredients like hummus, avocado, and raw or roasted vegetables
Snacks: Dark chocolate (proven to improve cognitive function). Pumpkin seeds (rich in omega-3 and help with immunity)
Ready to fuel your body to perform your best at work?
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