How Can Shift Workers Lose Weight?

By Dr. Mike Roussell for

Q: I work a rotating shift so it is hard to have a regular eating and sleeping routine. What can I do to jumpstart my weight loss?

A: The big problem with shift work is that shift work itself is hazardous to your health. Researchers speculate that the disruption of circadian rhythms (which impact metabolism), decreased dietary quality and lack of good sleep when it comes to both quality and quantity are the driving forces behind the negative health and body weight effects of shift work. You can't do much about the disruption of your circadian rhythm, but you can fix your sleep and diet.

Getting adequate rest should be a major priority for you because insufficient zzz's -- particularly the level of sleep debt that can accrue with shift work -- is a major metabolic problem. Research is consistently showing that poor sleep habits create a hormonal environment that conditions your fat cells to be resistant to shrinking through changes in insulin sensitivity and the hormone leptin, which is a major regulator of appetite and metabolism.

The key here is napping. In her book Take a Nap! Change Your Life, Sara Mednick, Ph.D., points out the important utility of 40 winks to help combat the ills of shift work. Twenty- to 30-minute naps can be used during the week to recharge yourself mentally, and 90-minute naps should be used on your off days to help minimize your sleep debt. By taking 90 minutes to doze, you will go through all the stages of sleep, and some research shows that the benefits of this length nap are equivalent to that of getting eight hours of sleep during the night.

The second must-do for shift workers is meal planning. If you are coming off a late night shift, the last thing you are going to want to do is sit down and think about what to eat and if you have those foods on hand, let alone cook the meal before you can eat. You need to set yourself up for success by having your meals pre-planned and ideally pre-made, especially the ones you'd eat coming off a night shift. This will help drastically with your adherence to your healthy eating plan and thus your weight loss.

A mantra I have with clients is "Control the things you can control." In your case, sleep and diet are two things that you can control despite your work schedule. Put into action the tips I have outlined with respects to those two areas and you should see your weight loss -- and overall wellbeing -- improve pretty quickly.

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