It’s eight hours into a 12-hour shift, and I'm running on empty. I reach for a slice of birthday cake that’s been sitting in the break room all day. The sugar fix helps me bounce back—for about 45 minutes. At this point, feeling shaky, sluggish and cranky, I grab the nearest piece of candy to keep my blood sugar from bottoming out. Sound familiar?
Nurses everywhere can relate to this cycle of blood sugar peaks and dips. Sweet treats are clearly the wrong food choice for those of us who need to be at the top of our game. When we eat simple sugars, such as cookies, candy or white bread, they provide a rush of energy and our body uses them up quickly. This energy burst doesn’t last, though, and the blood sugar slide is steep, leaving us in a tired slump that is difficult to recover from. It’s time to adopt a different eating plan for the hospital shift marathon.
The race is on
To increase your energy and endurance, start approaching your shifts like a marathon runner approaches a race: by fueling your body with high-quality, easily digestible whole foods before, during and after your shift. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water. Dehydration can make you tired and headachy, the wrong feeling when you need to be mentally sharp.
Carbohydrates for steady energy
Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, convert to sugars more slowly than simple carbohydrates do, so your blood sugar remains stable for longer, giving you sustained energy. Choose a high-fiber carbohydrate, like oatmeal or berries, to help stay full longer. Other options include granola, whole-grain bread or pasta, low-fat yogurt, brown rice, apple or orange slices, and raw vegetables.
Protein to go the distance and counter stress
Protein helps rebuild muscle and provide longer-lasting energy, but it’s also beneficial in times of stress. Adding a serving of protein to your meals and snacks can keep you sharp and help the body fend off the stress that comes with the job. While some sources of protein are “heavy” and hard to digest, pick lighter options, such as hard-boiled eggs, beans, nuts, nut butter or tofu. You could also choose smoked salmon, packaged tuna or cheese.
Fats for good overall health
Despite the bad rap that dietary fats have earned, bodies need fats to function well. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—often referred to as “healthy” fats—from foods like nuts, seeds, avocados and vegetable oils provide energy, promote vitamin absorption, support brain health and keep inflammation in check. Include a small amount of healthy fat with each meal or snack: perhaps a handful of almonds, or half of an avocado. Olives and fatty fish, such as salmon or sardines, are also good choices.
Prepare for your back-to-back shifts by eating a pre-shift feast of brown rice with grilled chicken and broccoli sauteed in olive oil. This easily prepared meal (or any combo that features lean protein, whole grains and colorful veggies) will help supply you with energy, prevent your blood sugar from spiking, and provide fiber to help you stay full longer.
To keep your gas tank topped off until you have time for another meal, pack a few easy-to-eat snacks that combine complex carbs and lean protein, along with healthy fats.
Some snack ideas to try:
● Shredded wheat crackers, grainy mustard, a few olives, a small piece of
cheese and a handful of grapes
● Yogurt with granola and nuts
● Smoked salmon, whole-grain crackers and cucumber slices
● Oatmeal with berries and nuts
At the end of each shift, refuel with another healthy meal. This is particularly important when you work back-to-back shifts and need to maintain a steady supply of energy for several days.
Oh, and about those break room treats: Feel free to indulge a little. You earned it.
Cindy Blye, RN, BSN, CCM, is a nurse with experience in newborn intensive care, pediatrics, and case management.