Midnight snacking can combat fatigue

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A study conducted by the University of South Australia has revealed whether altering food intake during a nightshift can impact fatigue and wellbeing.

Testing the impact of either a snack, a meal, or no food at all, the study found that a simple snack was the best choice for maximising alertness and productivity.

Lead researcher, UniSA PhD candidate Charlotte Gupta, said the finding could potentially help thousands of nightshift workers.

“In today’s 24/7 economy, working the nightshift is increasingly common, with many industries – health care, aviation, transport and mining – requiring employees to work around the clock,” Gupta said.

“As a nightshift worker, finding ways to manage your alertness when your body is naturally primed for sleep can be really challenging.

“We know that many nightshift 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.

“This is the first study to investigate how workers feel and perform after eating different amounts of food.

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

Out of Australia’s 1.4 million shift workers, more than 200,000 regularly work evening or night shifts.

As working at night conflicts with a person’s circadian rhythm, it is harder for them to stay focused and awake, thus making fatigue management a critical workplace health and safety issue.

The study assessed the impact of three eating scenarios during a seven-day simulated shift work protocol:

  • a meal comprising 30 per cent of energy intake over a 24-hour period (e.g. a sandwich, muesli bar, and apple) consumed at 12:30am;
  • a snack comprising 10 per cent of energy intake (e.g. just a muesli bar and apple) consumed at 12:30am; and
  • no food intake at all.

The 44 participants in the study were randomly split into the three test conditions and were asked to report on their levels of hunger, gut reaction and sleepiness.

The results showed that while all participants reported increased sleepiness and fatigue, and decreased vigour across the nightshift, consuming a snack had reduced the impact of these feelings more so than a meal or no food at all.

The snack group also reported having no uncomfortable feelings of fullness as noted by the meal group.

Gupta said the next step in the research is to investigate how different types of snacks affect shift workers differently.

“Now that we know that consuming a snack on nightshift will optimise your alertness and performance without any adverse effects, we’re keen to delve more into the types of snacks shift workers are eating,” she said.

“Lots of shift workers snack multiple times over a nightshift, and 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.

“Ultimately, the goal is to help Australian shift workers stay alert, be safe and feel healthy.”

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