One in five Americans work alternative and rotating shifts, including night shifts. That means one in five Americans — medical professionals, security guards, police officers, cleaning staff — know firsthand how hard the night shift is. It takes a toll on your sleep patterns, your social life, and oftentimes your eating habits.

Having a schedule that differs from the general 9–5 workday makes it hard to eat well, get enough nutrition, and maintain your weight. Night shift workers gain more weight than those who work during the day, due in part to the disruption of the body’s normal circadian rhythm. Scientists believe disturbing that regular rhythm (by working all night when your body would like to sleep) predisposes your body to gain more weight than it would on a regular daytime schedule.

This means if you work night shifts, it’s even more important to ensure you eat a healthy diet. Creating a meal plan helps a lot — that can be easier said than done, though. If you struggle with keeping a planned diet, you’re not alone; and you can do something about it. Below, we explain why it’s hard to stick to a meal plan when you work the night shift or nontraditional hours, and how you can make it easier for yourself.

Why It’s So Hard to Eat Well On the Night Shift

The reality is, if you work nontraditional hours, you’re more likely to eat irregularly, or skip meals entirely — and you probably find it hard to fit in enough exercise. It’s not just you; the night shift makes being healthy a lot more difficult, no matter your habits.

If throwing your body’s schedule into chaos wasn’t enough, there aren’t many nutritious food options for those working the graveyard shift. The majority of restaurants open in the middle of the night, or early in the morning, tend to be fast food restaurants. If you’re trying to avoid the unhealthy chicken nuggets and burgers, your next best option is likely an office vending machine, full of snacks and drinks that definitely aren’t nutritious.

If you’re aiming to eat well, you’re often left trying to choose the lesser of two evils — the greasy french fries, or the 75-cent shortbread cookies — which is bad enough, without the added fact that your body is at a disadvantage no matter which you choose. It turns out, the night shift may actually slow down your metabolism, causing you to burn calories slower than someone who works during the day. So even if you get that one salad from the drive-through menu, your body is still predisposed to weight gain.

The evidence is clear: nontraditional work schedules make it difficult to eat well, and easy to gain weight. You can combat the challenges of your schedule, with a clearly defined plan, and the willpower to see it through.

Making and Sticking To a Meal Plan

Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Whether or not he was directly referring to meal planning, when it comes to healthy eating habits and working strange hours, he couldn’t be more correct.

Here’s how you can put together a plan to eat regular, nutritious meals that help your body overcome any late-night disruptions to its natural rhythm.

Stock up on healthy foods and get rid of junk food.

If it’s not in your house, there won’t be a temptation to eat it. Cut down on buying unhealthy foods, and replace them with nutritious foods instead. Keep plenty of protein-filled and nutritious snacks like fruit, nuts, and yogurt on hand. Unlike chips and cookies, these snacks will actually nourish you, making you feel less hungry between meals and giving you energy boosts your body needs.

A good tip for your shopping trips: Stay along the the perimeter of the grocery store, to reduce your likelihood of picking up those foods high in sodium, sugar, and fat.

Prepare ahead of time.

Once you’ve got your pantry full of healthy food, schedule time to make your meals in advance. This decreases the chances of you arriving home from a shift, exhausted and wondering what to eat, and quickly pulling out a container of Easy Mac. Set aside time on your day off, or a day when you have a spare block of time, and cook as much as you can — so you’ll have plenty of healthy leftovers in the fridge that can be easily re-heated.

One easy idea: Hard boil a bunch of eggs at the beginning of the week, store them in the fridge, and bring a few work each day as a healthy, high-protein snack.

You may also consider getting a slow cooker, which makes it easy to throw some veggies and meat together before you leave for work, and return home to a delicious stew. There’s a wide selection of fantastic slow cooker recipes that make preparing meals a snap.

Eat three regular meals.

Working irregular hours leaves many people feeling like they can only find time for one “real” meal; keep in mind that no matter your schedule, it’s important to get three square meals a day. Try to avoid having a large meal in the middle of the night, and stick as closely to a regular eating schedule as you can. If possible, have breakfast when returning home after your night shift, sit down for lunch after waking up, and eat a full dinner before you go back to work in the evening.

If you find yourself hungry during the night, have a light snack that will give you a bit of energy, and is easy for your system to digest; such as fruit, yogurt, or light soup.

Build your meal schedule around your job, and then follow it each day. Sticking to a consistent eating schedule will help your metabolism run more smoothly, burning more calories and keeping you healthier overall.

Stop snacking.

This ties closely with the above point. Once you’ve created your consistent meal schedule, it’s not only important to ensure you eat at all three meal times, but also that you refrain from eating too much in between those times. Many night shift workers find themselves snacking because they’re bored, or tired.

If you’re snacking in an effort to keep your eyelids from drooping, this is a sign you’re likely not getting enough sleep in your off hours (see below). If you’re snacking because you’re bored, start training yourself to pause and recognize that feeling of boredom, before heading to the vending machine. This takes a bit of work in the area of mindfulness; becoming conscious of how your body and mind feel at any given moment. As you get better at identifying your own moments of boredom, come up with healthier alternative solutions. What can you do to relieve the boredom without taking a toll on your waistline? Depending on the nature of your job responsibilities, you may try listening to music, working on a crossword puzzle, chewing gum, or fiddling with a small object (like a stress ball or silly putty), to alleviate your boredom.

Get enough sleep.

Yes, it’s difficult. Our bodies fight sleep during the daylight hours, so even if you feel exhausted from working all night, it can be challenging to get the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep each day. In fact, the average night shift worker only gets about five hours of sleep. Most night shift workers are victims of “shift-lag” — going to be bed at 8am, yet unable to sleep past 1pm; therefore, getting well under the recommended amount of sleep each day.

If you are a victim of shift-lag, try to take small naps throughout the afternoon to get you closer to that seven-hour mark. If you struggle to fall asleep when you get home from your shifts, try a few strategies to help your body understand it’s time for sleep: close the blinds and darken the room as much as possible, play quiet and relaxing music, avoid using your TV or computer screens within the half-hour beforehand, and introduce the calming scent of lavender into the room.

What does sleeping have to do with sticking to your meal plan? Everything. Without adequate sleep, it is hard for humans to practice self-control in the waking hours. Decreasing your capacity for self-control will make it harder to resist that vending machine, or fast food drive-through on the way home.

Developing and sticking to a nutritious meal plan won’t return your social life to normal, and it won’t make up for missing the sun (though you can get vitamin D for that!); but it will help you feel healthier and more energetic during your waking hours — and keep your weight in check. You’re not the only person working nontraditional, irregular hours, so if you need extra support or motivation, seek out and talk to other people who work in a similar field or schedule as you. Remember, for your body’s health and wellbeing, routine is essential. Set the time aside to plan your meals (and plan your sleep schedule, if you can), and keep yourself on a healthy routine — the longer you follow your meal plan, the easier and more habitual it will become.

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