Eating Healthy as a Nurse 

One of the challenges of shiftwork, especially in an intensive hospital environment, is ensuring that your body gets the fuel it needs to be able to effectively do your job for long periods of time. Going without sufficient food can negatively impact your physical health, and it can also lead to unclear thinking and irritability.

With that being said, eating healthy as a nurse is easier said than done. Most nurses can relate to never having true “breaks” in the day to just sit down and eat a meal, and even those who do have scheduled breaks are often pulled away when patients are not doing well. This results in the tendency to skip meals or to turn to unhealthy, processed foods from the vending machine just to make it through the shift.

Keeping the busy nurse’s schedule in mind, the following tips can help you make healthy changes to your diet when you’re short on time: 

1. Try not to skip meals

Our bodies are meant to eat regularly. When you skip a meal, your blood glucose is negatively impacted, which can result in changes in mood and promote weight gain. If you are unable to take a true break for a meal, it is recommended that you bring sufficient snacks to work. 

Look for foods that are high in protein, like a nutrition bar or a small cup of high-protein yogurt. For example, Siggi’s yogurt has around 10 to 15 grams of protein and can be eaten quickly during a busy shift. 

2. Choose high-energy foods 

It’s tempting to just grab a quick snack from the vending machine, especially when your stomach is growling and you’re short on time. We’ve all done it, but it’s not in our best interest to make it a habit. Processed foods are often high in sugar and may give you quick energy, but this boost generally wanes pretty quickly, resulting in a crash. You may even feel more tired than you did before you ate the snack.  

Some great foods to have on hand include nuts, berries, and oatmeal. If you’re able to prepare some of your meals and snacks at home, consider lean proteins, like chicken, eggs, and beans, or healthy fats, like fish and avocado.

3. Plan your meals

Meal prep can be pretty daunting, especially when you’re working 12+ hour shifts, and it’s probably not at the top of your list of things to do on your days off. While time-consuming, meal prep is important for ensuring that you get the nutrition you need, and it can help you avoid the temptation to turn to processed foods that are easy to heat up in the microwave.

One way to make meal prep a little easier is to prepare several meals at once and freeze some of them for later. That way, you can avoid eating the same meal every day, and you’ll have something ready to go on particularly busy weeks. There are plenty of resources online that can help guide you through creative ways to meal prep on a tight schedule.

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4. Be mindful when eating in the cafeteria 

Most hospitals have a cafeteria available to visitors and staff. It can be tempting to grab something greasy and fried when you go to lunch, especially if it’s right in front of you and looks and smells appealing. 

One way to combat cafeteria temptations (aside from bringing your own food, which may not be feasible with your schedule) is to plan your meal before going to get it. If possible, try to get a weekly or monthly menu so that you’ll have an idea of what is being served. Going in with a plan can help you avoid unneeded temptations and make the best choices for yourself. 

5. Try to eat regularly 

There may be some days when your eating schedule is compromised due to patient needs and/or staffing issues, which is understandable. Eating regularly does not necessarily have to mean sitting down and having a full meal (although it is ideal to avoid skipping meals). If you don’t have time to take a true lunch break, make sure you have something on hand that you can eat quickly. 

Getting on a consistent eating schedule can be tricky for nurses. When possible, try to eat something (even if it’s just a quick snack) every 4 to 5 hours during your shift. Some examples include pieces of fruit or peanut butter with crackers to provide that extra boost you need to make it to your next meal. 

6. Keep it interesting

Eating the same foods every day gets old quickly. It is important to have variety in your diet to stay healthy and to keep yourself satisfied. Try to incorporate numerous food groups, including whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Protein (which can be obtained through meat, plant-based sources, or even supplements) is crucial for keeping the body satiated throughout the day. 

Try to limit your foods that are high in saturated fat and sugar, as these can make you more tired and do not provide adequate nutrition. Additionally, be sure to avoid fad diets, as these rarely (if ever) work and are generally not sustainable in the long run, resulting in weight gain. 

7. Stay hydrated

Maintaining hydration is another challenge for many nurses, and you may not even think about it on busy days. There are also the extra layers of having to wear a mask at work and not being allowed to have drinks outside of designated hydration stations. Despite these difficulties, it is crucial that we get the hydration we need so that our bodies can function more optimally. Our bodies use water to help regulate several systems (including circulation and removal of waste), and not getting enough can cause increased tiredness and can even put stress on the heart. 

One way to motivate yourself to drink more water is to splurge on a fancy cup to keep it cold all day and make you feel just a little more excited about drinking. You could also invest in a bottle that provides tracking cues for the amount of water you should consume at each point in the day (these are often marked by every hour or two).

Making changes to your diet can be great for your overall health and well-being, but trying to make many changes at once can be daunting. Taking on too many new endeavors at once can make you feel overwhelmed. Try to make just 1-2 changes at a time so that you can slowly get used to your new lifestyle!

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