Nurses play an essential role in healthcare. They not only take care of patients but also educate them about leading healthy lives. This includes informing patients on how to improve their nutritional intake and adopt healthy eating habits. This said, nurses are so busy taking care of patients and handling their workload that they often forget to adopt healthy lifestyles themselves.
There is a lot of emphasis nowadays on nurses taking care of their health, as shift work, stress, fatigue and lack of access to healthy foods at the workplace can lend themselves to unhealthy habits. Nurses must maintain their own health in order to be able to provide optimal care to patients. Good nutrition and healthy behaviors help ensure this.
Importance of healthy diet and habits among nurses
Nurses take care of patients and as a result, they are constantly exposed to stressors. Taking care of seriously ill patients, failing to get adequate sleep due to long hours at work and handling family responsibilities are some of the work-related and personal stressors that nurses face every day. This can often cause nurses to adopt unhealthy eating habits. However, good nutrition and making healthy food choices can not only help nurses manage everyday stressors but also improve their energy levels and help them maintain their optimal body weight.
Nurses are leaders and role models, and should therefore be demonstrating the best habits. As a part of their role, nurses will need to provide patients with information about nutrition and making healthy eating choices. Students of an MSN FNP program, such as the online course from Texas Woman’s University, will build a knowledge of health promotion and disease prevention, especially in regards to treating diverse populations. Self-care and prevention strategies are both emphasized as focuses for patient care. Diet in particular can play an important role in managing chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease.
How stressors affect nurses
Nearly everyone experiences stress due to their professional and personal life. When the body is exposed to stressors, changes occur within the body. In the short-term, these changes can have a positive effect, such as temporarily boosting a person’s immune system. However, in the long-term, stressors have a negative effect, including impairing the immune system and leading to changes in hormone levels in the body.
One research study states that chronic stress can affect the nutritional choices people make. It can result in an increased appetite and also a higher preference for sugary and fatty foods. While these foods have high calories and in the short-term can give nurses a boost, in the long-term, they are not beneficial as these foods often lack essential nutrients. As a result, nurses who do not find ways to minimize stress and anxiety in their lives are more likely to gain unwanted weight. Being obese can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that the medical cost for people suffering from obesity is around $1,800 higher than the medical costs for adults who have a normal body weight.
As a part of patient care, you are responsible for lifting and moving patients. Excess body weight can prevent you from performing this job optimally and can also increase the risk of injuries.
As a nurse, it is important to recognize that being obese or overweight will put your body in a constant state of stress. This can lead to chronic inflammation in your body. Chronic inflammation can lead to oxidative stress, which, in turn, can damage lipids and proteins in the body. This can adversely affect your metabolism and how your body breaks down food into energy.
How nutrition can combat chronic stress
Many health experts state that chronic stress and subsequent inflammation and oxidative stress can be negated with the right nutrients. Consuming foods rich in fatty acids and antioxidants is the key to minimizing inflammation and the effects of stressors.
Foods that are high in antioxidants include citrus fruits, yellow and orange vegetables, almonds and sunflower oil. Rather than taking supplements, health experts recommend that nurses get their antioxidants from food. Natural antioxidants are more easily absorbed, helping protect the body from developing chronic diseases.
Eating foods rich in antioxidants is not sufficient. Nurses should also look to add fatty acids to their diets. Fish is one of the best sources of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. As a nurse, you should try to consume fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna, at least once a week. The fatty acids in the fish help reduce inflammation, boost cell growth, and minimize the ill-effects of oxidative stress. When oxidative stress in the body is reduced, it reduces the chances of developing cardiovascular disease and helps to reduce elevated blood pressure.
Due to inadequate facilities in their workplace or time constraints, many nurses end up consuming foods that are rich in fats and sugar. As stated earlier, fats and sugar give a temporary boost of energy to get you through a long workday; however, in the long run, these foods are major causes of obesity. Nurses are advised to minimize the amount of red meat consumed, which is high in fat. Protein requirements should be met through poultry, legumes, and fish. When you cut down your intake of red meat, it can reduce inflammation and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes as well as cardiovascular disease.
The link between sleep and eating
As a nurse, you know that you need to work long hours and may also need to work on weekends and holidays. As your work is shift-based, you can work during the day or through the night. This can wreak havoc on your sleep cycle, leading to poor quality sleep or sleep deprivation.
Sleep is essential to repair the body and ensure optimal emotional control. Sleep experts recommend a minimum of seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. However, when the circadian rhythm is disrupted, it can lead to an increased risk of obesity or chronic disease.
One research study found that when people work night shifts, it reduces the levels of leptin, a hormone that promotes satiety, and increases the levels of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite. So, if your circadian rhythm is disrupted due to variable shifts, you are likely to experience a hormonal imbalance. As a result, you are more likely to make poor eating choices that could lead to obesity and make you more prone to obesity-related diseases.
It is also important to note that nurses who suffer from sleep deprivation often make more mistakes compared to nurses who get sufficient sleep and come to work feeling rested. A mistake while taking care of a patient can be risky. If you notice that you are yearning for high-calorie foods and caffeinated beverages, you most likely are sleep deprived. If this is the case, it is advisable to make healthy food choices. Make the extra effort to eat foods that provide a balance of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein. Even if you work night shifts, make sure you consume nutritious foods and avoid consuming caffeine and calorie-rich foods.
Tips for healthy eating before, during, and after shifts
Whether you are a student nurse or you are getting ready to work a 12-hour shift, here are some tips that will help you embrace healthy eating habits:
Eat a balanced diet
Many associate healthy eating with unappetizing food. However, that is not the case. Rather than trying to limit yourself, look to eat a balanced meal. Ensure that your meal contains food items from the basic food groups. This will help ensure that you do not suffer from nutritional deficiencies. Try to include more veggies in your diet as that will help you meet your daily vitamin and mineral requirements. This will help strengthen your immune system, prevent nutritional deficiencies and support proper metabolism.
You should also include lean meat, poultry, eggs, fish, legumes, or Greek yogurt in your diet. Protein allows you to feel satiated for a longer period and gives you the energy required to get through a hectic shift.
Stay away from caffeinated beverages
It is tempting to sip a caffeinated drink or an energy drink during a tiring shift. You will love that boost of energy. While these beverages can give you energy, in the long run, they are addictive. Drinking coffee and other caffeinated drinks can lead to tachycardia, elevated blood pressure, insomnia, dehydration, restlessness, muscle tremors and an upset stomach. If you love coffee, drink it in moderation.
In addition, when caffeine leaves your body, you are likely to feel exhausted, irritable and anxious. To combat these side effects, you will likely want to consume caffeine again, leading to a vicious circle. As hard as it may sound, it is best to stay away from caffeinated drinks and drink plain water instead.
Bring healthy snacks to work
Even if you want to eat a balanced diet, many times, you may not be able to due to emergencies. Under such circumstances, you may be forced to forgo your meal, leaving you hungry, irritable and listless. Rather than succumbing to empty calories from the vending machine, munch on healthy snacks.
Make sure you pack snacks such as nuts, seeds, dried fruits, flavored almonds and homemade energy bars. They will not only provide you with the fuel you need to focus on your work but will also provide you with dietary fiber. You can even cut up fresh fruits and bring them to work along with a slice of cheese and a cup of yogurt.
Have fixed meal times
Whether you are working or staying at home, make sure you have a set schedule for all your meals. When you are at home, eat your meals at the same time and eat a balanced diet. While at work, mealtimes can vary, make sure that you do not have a gap longer than six hours between your meals.
It is best to eat small portions regularly rather than eating one huge meal. This way, your body will get the necessary nutrients and calories to function optimally, and you will be less likely to overeat or gain unhealthy weight.
Keep your body well-hydrated
While nurses may focus on eating healthily, some may forget the importance of hydration. Keeping your body properly hydrated is an important part of ensuring optimal nutrition. When your body gets sufficient hydration, it reduces fatigue and the possibility of headaches. It also improves your blood circulation and digestion.
Also, let’s not forget that when you drink adequate water, it will help keep you satiated. This will prevent you from unhealthy snacking. Aim to drink at least eight glasses of water during the day. You can fill a reusable water bottle at home and bring it to work every day. If you are not fond of drinking water and find it tasteless, you can add a few things to improve the taste. Consider adding slices of lemon, mint or your favorite fruit to give the water a refreshing and palatable flavor.
Plan your work meals
Working long hours and at strange times, such as nights or early mornings, can take a toll on your health. You can minimize the adverse effects of your shifts by eating nutritiously. One way to do this is by planning and preparing your meals in advance. It will save you time and ensure you have a healthy choice with you at work.
It is best to remember that while you may want to eat healthily at work, it will not always happen. If you are not prepared, you will have to contend with hunger, which can lead to cravings for high-sugar and fatty foods. The best way to prevent this is to pack nutritious meals and snacks from home.
Treat yourself occasionally
Whether you bring your food from home or you sit with a friend to eat food at your workplace cafeteria, don’t shy away from treating yourself once in a while. This will help you satiate your cravings and refrain from going overboard.
By studying nutrition as a student nurse, you likely learned about the importance of indulging sometimes. The same holds true for you. Use the treat as a way to satiate your cravings so that the next day, you can go back to your healthy food choices.
Control your portions
As stated earlier, consider eating small meals frequently rather than eating a huge meal. This will help prevent you from overeating and also maintain optimal digestion.
Pack single serving containers of food and snacks that you can enjoy during your shift. Also, make sure that you drink sufficient water while eating. This will help you to stick to your portions and not go overboard.
Head outdoors to eat
As strange as it may sound, eating outside in a park with a friend or alone can be invigorating and refreshing. When you eat in your workplace, you are likely to gobble down the food as you will want to get back to your patients and work. Taking a short break from work and concentrating solely on your food will allow you to satiate your hunger and also chew slowly.
Take your lunchbox and head to a nearby park. If you do not have a coworker to accompany you, go on your own. Use your break to clear your head and relax while you eat. You will find that you can get back to work with renewed gusto and zest.
Have a potluck with your coworkers
Another way to enjoy your meals is by planning a potluck with your colleagues. Make sure you plan ahead so that each person brings something healthy and nutritious. You can share the food and enjoy talking and laughing. It will help you to de-stress and relax.
Ensure you emphasize healthy food choices. Use this opportunity to bond with the other nurses so that you can work well as a team.
Be a role model to your patients
When you take care of your own health by making healthy food choices, it will show. You will be filled with energy and be better able to tackle emergencies and other work-related tasks without becoming stressed or fatigued. This will help you get more done during your shift.
When you advocate healthy living to patients, they are more likely to accept your advice and suggestions. By adopting healthy living, you will be able to influence the health and wellbeing of your patients. There is no greater reward than this.
As a nurse, you have a challenging and demanding job. You need to be at the top of your game during each shift to provide the best care for your patients. One way to help ensure this is to eat healthily and drink adequate water. This will improve your health and allow you to think on your feet and use your skills for the benefit of your patients.