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Working late? Science answers whether we should snack on the job

Do you pig out on night shift, have a snack, or ignore the belly rumbles? The University of South Australia has the answer. (Source: Getty)

Shift workers on the night shift or those burning the midnight oil are likely no stranger to hunger pangs.

But having a full meal might kill your productivity, and yet having no meal at all can very easily be its own distraction.

So how much should you eat to be at your optimal performance?

Charlotte Gupta, lead researcher and PhD candidate at the University of South Australia (UniSA), led a study that tested the impact that a snack, a meal or no food at all had on alertness and productivity.

“As a night-shift worker, finding ways to manage your alertness when your body is naturally primed for sleep can be really challenging,” she said.

To eat or not to eat: The research and the result

Over a period of seven days that simulated shift work, the study assessed the impact of eating a meal (e.g. a sandwich, muesli bar and apple), a snack (e.g. just the muesli bar and apple), or no food at all at 12:30am.

While all 44 participants of the study reported higher levels of sleepiness, fatigue and decreased vigour throughout the night shift, the consumption of just a snack reduced these symptoms more than having a full meal or having no food at all.

The snack group also didn’t report the feeling of fullness that the meal group did.

“We know that many night-shift 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,” said Gupta.

“The findings will inform the most strategic eating patterns on-shift and can hopefully contribute to more alert and better performing workers.”

Noting that night shift workers often snack multiple times over a shift, she added that the next step was to look at what kind of snacks were the best for shift workers.

“Understanding the different macronutrient balances is important, especially as many report consuming foods high in fat, such as chips, chocolate and fast foods.

“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.”

Night shift: The numbers

In a 24-7 economy, night shifts are the norm for workers across several industries such as healthcare, aviation, transport, and mining.

Across the country, 15 per cent of 1.4 million shift workers regularly work a night or evening shift, which clashes with their internal circadian clocks and makes it harder to stay awake – so managing fatigue is crucial.

The study findings aim to make eating patterns more strategic so workers can be more alert, perform better, and feel healthy Gupta said.

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