Pack a snack for your midnight shift

University of South Australia

Wednesday, 28 August, 2019

Pack a snack for your midnight shift

Australia has 1.4 million shiftworkers, 15% of whom regularly work an evening or night shift. For these workers, irregular eating schedules are common. This equates to more than 200,000 workers.

Additionally, night work can conflict with a person’s internal circadian clock, which can make it harder for workers to remain focused and awake. Managing fatigue, therefore, is critical for workplace health and safety — especially for workers in the industrial sector, who may be engaged in tasks that require high concentration or tension.

Researchers from the University of South Australia (UniSA) set out to investigate the optimum food type for night shiftwork. The study examined three eating conditions — a snack comprising 10% of energy intake (over a 24-hour period), a meal comprising 30% of energy intake and no food at all — all consumed at 12.30 am.

There were 44 participants taking part in the study, who were randomly split among the three test conditions. The participants were asked to report on levels of hunger, gut reaction and sleepiness. The researchers found that a simple snack such as a muesli bar, sandwich or apple was the shiftworker’s best choice for maximising alertness and productivity.

“In today’s 24/7 economy, working the nightshift is increasingly common, with many industries — health care, aviation, transport and mining — requiring employees to work around the clock,” lead researcher Charlotte Gupta said about the context for the study. “We know that many nightshift workers eat on-shift to help them stay awake, but until now, no research has shown whether this is good or bad for their health and performance.”

The study is the first to investigate how workers feel and perform after eating different amounts of food. Now that the simple snack has emerged as ideal, the researchers say the next step is to investigate different types of snacks and how these snacks might affect shiftworkers differently.

“Lots of shiftworkers snack multiple times over a nightshift, and understanding the different macronutrient balances is important — especially as many report consuming foods high in fat, such as chips, chocolate and fast foods,” Gupta said. “We’re keen to assess how people feel and perform after a healthy snack versus a less healthy but potentially more satisfying snack, like chocolate or lollies.”

The ultimate goal of this and future research is, according to Gupta, “to help Australian shiftworkers on the nightshift to stay alert, be safe and feel healthy”.

The study was published this year in the academic journal Nutrients.

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