Study: Helping shift workers improve eating habits

Improving the eating habits of night shift workers is the focus of a study being conducted by the University of South Australia and Monash University.

The SWIFt study, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is focused on finding suitable diet plans that can empower shift workers to better regulate their health. It is looking at weight outcomes as well as blood lipids, blood pressure and glucose control.

In Australia, 1.5 million Australians are employed as shift workers, with more than 200,000 regularly working a night or evening shift.

According to Dr Michelle Rogers, clinical trial coordinator and dietician from UniSA, just by turning up to work shift workers’ odds of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes is 23% and 44% respectively. These risks remain even when controlling for lifestyle factors.

“When you work irregular hours, your eating and sleeping patterns are affected, causing metabolic changes that can affect your health,” Dr Rogers said.

“Our body relies upon regular rhythms of energy storage and usage, guided by day and night. When we upset this balance by eating or sleeping at odd hours, our body can’t compensate, and we end up with higher levels of glucose which contributes to weight gain.”

Research suggests shift workers consume foods with high carbohydrates and fat content along with a high consumption of drinks high in sugar. Snacking is also prevalent while on night shift.

Dr Rogers said by helping workers make positive changes to their diet pattern it can help reduce health risks of weight gain, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

However, there are challenges to overcome with Dr Rogers acknowledging issues such as finding the time for food preparation, shopping and making the right food choices.

She also highlighted the limited availability of locations to source healthier food choices at night if you forget your own meals, as well as the challenge of trying to change individual habits.

“Some people have fallen into individual habits that work for them based on their lifestyle and what they believe is optimal performance at work,” she said.

Co-researcher and UniSA colleague Professor Alison Coates said that the best way to stay healthy as a shift worker is through education.

“Prevention often comes hand in hand with education. If we can ensure that Australia’s shift workers are informed about healthy food options for the night shift, they can learn to make simple and sustainable changes to their diets.”

This includes being prepared. Plan your week ahead of time including what meals and snacks you want to eat.

Dr Rogers encouraged people to keep it simple. This will keep time needed for prep to a minimum and look to include a healthy variety of foods with a focus on fibre and low glycemic index options as you’ll not only stay fuller for longer, but also regulate your glucose and cholesterol levels.

The SWIFt study has over 200 enrolled participants and is currently on a final round of recruitment. If you are in Melbourne or Adelaide and surrounds and you want to find out more, or participate, visit www.monash.edu/medicine/swiftstudy

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