Sticking to your diet is a tough endeavor when you work nights. A nocturnal lifestyle alters your circadian rhythm, causing you to feel tired, sleepy, hungrier, and out of sync with everyone else. (For a deeper look at these effects, check out this related article by RP Registered Dietitian Paul Salter.)
Since night shifts are already difficult, throwing dieting in the mix seems like a nightmare. But it doesn't have to be. Here are some tips on how to deal with dieting while working nights (including specific tips on how to modify the RP diet templates):
- Space out your meals
The first, most obvious adjustment, is to simply space out your meals more. If you have 3h between meals, increase that to 4 or 5h, so you can get your protein at the recommended 5h frequency. However, if that doesn't work for your schedule, you can space meals out further. At the end of the day, consistency trumps nutrient timing by a long shot as determining factors for dieting success go.
- Use protein bars and other snacks
In many professions with night shifts, it might be hard to find time to have full meals. As such, always have protein bars with you. Beef jerky is also a popular protein source on the go. For fats, nuts are of course the most obvious and popular choice. For carbs, fruit is awesome. A banana or some sliced apple is always a nice treat that you can eat quickly and get back to work.
- Use casein protein
If you're doing the RP diet, you're of course more than familiar with casein. While a Whey protein shake is always a quick option, it's very fast digesting. Casein, on the other hand, is a magic bullet for fasting periods, because of how long it takes to digest. It's also more susceptible to muscle protein breakdown, making it more effective in promoting muscle retention -- a concern if you're fasting for long periods. If you must space your meals longer than 5h apart, casein is your best friend.
- Move most of your macros to a single meal
For a variety of reasons, we typically recommend avoiding making any changes to the RP templates, but some changes are justified in some situations. If you can't have full meals during your shift, something that might help is Intermittent Fasting. Also abbreviated by IF, it's a type of diet where you fast for a long period of time, and then have a feeding window where you eat most of your calories.
Because you're fasting for a long period, it's a great choice for people who don't have much time to eat. The trouble is, recent research (by Dr. Stuart Phillips) has shown that fasting for long periods of time might not be the best for muscle retention, as you need regular protein feedings through out the day to support it.
Lucky for you, you can easily adjust the IF method to account for this. If you eat only your protein macros in each meal and skip the others, this makes the meal smaller, easier, and quicker to eat, while still supplying the protein your muscles need. At the end of your shift when you're able to eat a full meal, simply add all the macros you missed to that meal. It's worth mentioning, however, that this nutrient timing approach may increase hunger throughout the day for some, and is not recommended for those who have previously struggled with any type of eating disorder.
- Have an extra meal
If your night work necessitates that you pull very long shifts that require you to stay awake for longer periods than the rest of us - looking at you, nurses and doctors - you may find yourself hungrier than the rest of us as well. If you're also able to swing a sit-down meal during these long "graveyard" shifts, adding an extra meal to your daily intake is good practice. Ideally, you would split one of your meals in half, but straight up adding another full meal is also a workable option. Doing the latter would of course introduce extra calories, which will delay your weight loss, but is an effective way to combat unbearable hunger that might otherwise cause you to binge, which would be more damaging, as consistency is king. Adding a full meal is also a particularly benign option for those who only work occasional lengthy night shifts.
"Borrowing" an extra meal for the day you anticipate being awake the longest and then eating one less meal the following day to break even for the week has also worked well for a lot of RP folks.
Above all, it's important to emphasize that, while night shifts require some dieting "creativity", they should not be a diet's death sentence if some the approaches above are employed. For additional guidance on navigating the demands of your particular night job or other late night commitments, our 1:1 coaching services are here to provide the customization and support to ensure your success. And now, goodnight and good luck!