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13th June 2014

Is Shift Work Making Our Workforce Fat and Ill?

Nightly skyIt is known that inadequate and poor quality sleep is associated with obesity. But there is a growing research base that is showing a detrimental health effect associated with shift work. Yet another study has recently been published that finds evidence that night shift work is associated with metabolic syndrome, the term for a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.

Other lifestyle factors

But is it the shift work or is it perhaps other lifestyle factors more typical to shift workers that may help to explain such findings? Shift workers, for example, are more likely to smoke, have lower physical activity levels and poorer diets, so could shift work just be a marker of poor lifestyle rather than a cause of ill-health?

Observational studies cannot definitively prove causality. However studies that have adjusted for lifestyle factors in shift workers still see an increased risk of for heart attacks, coronary heart disease and stroke, and so it is unlikely that it is just unhealthy behaviour patterns that account for all of the association. It would seem that the disruption of circadian rhythm predisposes shift workers to higher risk of chronic disease.

Timing and quality of meals

Regardless of the explanation, shift workers should be vigilant about modifiable risk factors. The HSE (Health and Safety Executive) point out that it is very important to consider the timing and quality of meals in shift workers where digestive problems are common due to disruption of the body clock and poor diet. They suggest that:

  • Regular light meals/snacks are less likely to reduce alertness or cause drowsiness than a single heavy meal
  • Shift workers should choose foods like pasta, rice, bread, salad, fruit, vegetables and dairy products and avoid fatty, spicy and/or heavy meals as these can promote drowsiness and may also disturb sleep when it’s time to rest
  • Sugar-containing foods, such as biscuits, cakes and chocolate, should be limited as they may only provide a short-term energy boost. High fibre and wholegrain snacks can release energy slowly, and fruit and vegetables are also good snacks as they provide vitamins, minerals and fibre
  • Plenty of fluid is important. Dehydration can reduce both mental and physical performance but avoid drinking too much fluid before sleeping as this may overload the bladder.

Flexible work patterns, particularly in social and health care, remain a necessary component of the UK economy, so it’s our job to ensure that shift workers have all the support they need to make healthy lifestyle choices.

*All information is correct at the time of publishing. Use of this material is subject to your acceptance of our terms and conditions.

Ayela Spiro

Nutrition Science Manager, British Nutrition Foundation

Ayela is a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, where her role involves providing expert advice on nutrition and health issues to a number of key audiences including consumers, health professionals, charities, the media and the food industry. At the heart of her work is the communication of nutrition science that promotes understanding of nutrition and health and contributes to the improved wellbeing of all.

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