The summer diet season is already in full swing. That means you’ve overheard guests on the other side of the bar lauding the benefits of a high-protein Paleo, Zone, or Atkins diet as a means of building muscle and losing weight.
Although these diets look tempting to someone who spends so much time working busy late shifts and scrambling for meals, and can seem to produce quick weight loss in some, they’re not the keys to healthy eating that most dietitians would recommend. Many experts advocate eating three meals a day (and a couple of snacks) that balance protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats.
"It really depends on your schedule, how much you're sleeping, and how much you're awake," says David Orozco, food therapist and registered dietician at TD Wellness in suburban Atlanta. "Mimic what a typical 9-to-5 day would look like. If you, for example, get up at noon, your breakfast is an hour to an hour-and-a-half from waking. The first step is the meal pattern."
But the spacing of the meals is also important. "Don't go over five hours without a meal or substantial snack," says Helen Kane, a dietitian in Philadelphia. "Our bodies run on carbs, so the ideal mix for a meal is 3-4 ounces of protein with at least two carbohydrate servings." One serving of carbohydrates, Kane says, is 15 grams of carbs, or approximately one small piece of fruit, 1/2 cup of oatmeal, or 1/2 cup of starchy vegetables.
Eating like this comes with a lot of benefits. "It helps to set the circadian rhythm [the sleep cycle],” said Orozco. “It helps keep glucose levels more balanced throughout the day." Keeping blood sugar levels stable can also help keep up consistent energy levels, balance the mood, and promote greater alertness. "It also helps people digest efficiently and effectively. Of course, when you're working, it becomes a little trickier."
During a busy bar shift, it can be easy to reach for whatever foods are at hand rather than consciously choosing healthy options. Luckily, there are a few options to keep hunger at bay and your eating habits intact.
Watch those chicken fingers
"I recommend having the main meal [usually dinner] before a long shift begins," says Roni Enten Vissoker, a licensed dietician and nutritionist. "But if possible, bring along protein snacks with you to work. Bringing along healthy snacks can help ward off post-shift hunger." Orozco, on the other hand, advocates eating a substantial snack or small meal before your shift, then another during. Ultimately, it’s up to you to find the schedule that works to keep you on your feet.
There are some stumbling blocks to eating well on a busy shift. If you don't have the money or time to pack dinner, it can be difficult to stay on track, especially if you work at a standalone bar or restaurant that serves foods that are high in sugar, salt, and fat, but low in nutritional value. Think unhealthy snacks like chicken fingers, hot dogs, and French fries.
But there are ways to work around the least healthy menu. "[These places] may have some fresh things on hand like fruits or vegetables," says Orozco. "Grab a light sandwich with that. Or eat two or three chicken fingers with some fruits and vegetables. Yes, it's fried, but you've got the carb on the chicken, and it's a pretty decent meal, believe it or not.”
Another important component to performance is hydration. Make sure you drink lots of fluids before your shift, and keep drinking water during. "We often want to eat, but really it's a hydration issue," said Kane. Orozco agreed, adding that the body can confuse hunger and thirst. "Getting enough fluid early in the day can affect your hunger levels when you get to work."
Last of all, avoid the late-night fried chicken or burger after you get off work. "Prepping a post-shift meal in advance of the shift [is helpful] so that it's ready to eat after getting home," says Vissoker. "At this point, a bit of carbs such as brown rice, whole grain crackers, or a banana can help you wind down and get to sleep faster."
Hit the kitchen
Here are some suggestions to keep you going strong through a busy day and long shift.
"The first meal of the day must include a protein source," says Kane. "Protein in the first meal decreases your stomach lining's production of the hunger hormone."
- Egg scramble with cheese, spinach, tomatoes, ham and onions on flatbread with a side of berries
- Quarter cup of low-fat, low-sugar granola with an ounce of mixed nuts and seeds and low-sugar yogurt
Lunch or Dinner
"Aim for lean protein such as fish, chicken, or turkey (with a preference for pastured/organic) plenty of non-starchy veggies and a smaller serving of lower glycemic whole grain or sweet potato plus some healthy fats from avocado, olive oil or nuts," says Vissoker.
- Salad and sandwich
- Soup and salad
- Soup and sandwich
- Salad with mixed greens and 3-5 oz salmon or other lean fish
- Veggie pizza
"It's better to have some prepackaged foods or snacks, getting a lunch bag, putting a nice ice pack in there and throwing a few things in," says Orozco. "That way, you get a little combination of most food groups and are not at the mercy of the after-hours high-calorie, low-nutrient foods available that you might end up having."
- Hummus and vegetables
- Nuts, cheese and a small piece of fruit
- Peanut, almond, or cashew butter and vegetable sticks
- Hardboiled eggs
- Greek yogurt (low sugar, low fat if possible)
- Protein bars (low sugar)
- Peanut butter and crackers