Nurses Care for Others but Neglect Self-Care

Shift work, long hours, and grueling assignments can make it difficult for nurses to sustain a healthy and well-balanced diet. From granola bars and coffee to candy and cookies, let's face it - if the food is convenient, free, or provides a burst of energy, nurses will eat it. The saying "if you feed them, they will come" is a particularly true statement on any hospital floor. It does not matter what type of food it is, how long it has been sitting out, or who provided it. If it is readily available, nurses will eat it. Late-night potlucks and daytime grill-out-themed meals involve a variety of convenient yet unhealthy options that nurses choose to eat. Here's why there is such a high prevalence of unhealthy eating in the nursing field, and simple ways to get your eating habits back on track.

These poor food choices are influenced by:

  • Little to no time for breaks. Nurses rarely have a chance to sit down and eat for more than 10 minutes. Additionally, nurses often feel guilty about asking someone else to watch their sick patients while they rejuvenate with a nutritious meal. Instead, they quickly grab whatever is available in the break room and get back to work.
  • Long hours. A 12-hour shift, coupled with a commute, often ends in exhaustion. This leads to little motivation to even begin thinking about a healthy meal after a shift, and limited time or energy to meal prep for the next day. Other commitments outside of work also result in less time to prepare homemade meals.
  • Scarce resources. With no time to run to the cafeteria on shift or get there before it closes at night, nurses have a limited amount of affordable and healthy options to purchase throughout their shift. Instead, they often resort to the vending machine or that unhealthy snack in the break room.
  • The food culture. Fun occasions at work are often celebrated with food. Co-workers typically bring unhealthy food such as cake, cookies, candy, and other unhealthy options. Even if the nurse has intentions of eating healthy, this can be challenging in the healthcare setting due to job stress, convenience, and temptations to eat sugary foods.

Nurses Meet Their Slump

Nurses constantly give so much of themselves and often forget about their own self-care. When nurses frequently eat out of convenience instead of intentionally fueling their bodies, adverse health effects can occur. The prevalence of obesity in United States nurses ranges from 23% to 61.4%. The long hours and shift rotations can also influence these statistics. When the circadian rhythm is disrupted, it's challenging for metabolic processes to function efficiently- regardless of diet practices. This is a significant concern, for the following reasons:

  • Poor diets and decreased physical activity go hand-in-hand
  • Increased risk of chronic diseases
  • Higher frequency in work absenteeism
  • Decreased quality of patient care
  • Less motivation for patients to lead a healthy lifestyle when nutrition is not taught at all or taught less confidently by an unhealthy nurse
  • Poor family life and less involvement
  • Development of chronic pain

Legitimate Fuel for Nurses

It is critical that nurses ingest healthy nutrients before a preventable disease develops. As the nursing profession continues to grow and the need for nurses increases, it is increasingly important for nurses to stay healthy. This starts with eating the right foods to fuel the body.

Simple tips to eat healthy as a nurse include:

  • Eat consistently. Small, frequent meals or snacks are better digested and nutrients are utilized more by the body. Try packing small disposable bags of snacks that are easily accessible and can be tossed when finished.
  • Know the portion size. Many calories are ingested unknowingly due to a lack of knowledge around proper portion sizes or making multiple trips to the break room.
  • Pack and eat a variety of food. A variety of colorful food gives your body a healthy dose of nutrients that can help boost the immune system. This reduces the likelihood of illness and boosts your energy.
  • Plan and pack for the week. Instead of taking the time to pack a meal each day, prepare multiple meals for the week while you have the food already out.
  • Hydrate. Instead of eating several helpings of potluck food or breakroom snacks, fill up a water bottle and drink it throughout the day.
  • Eat ONE treat. Although it may be tempting to try all of the available desserts, aim to pick one and be done.
  • Bring a healthy option to the potluck. This way, there will be one guaranteed nutritious choice.
  • Advocate for healthier options to be available around the clock.
  • Remember: you can't take care of others if you don't take care of yourself.
Anna Moats-Gibson, RN, MSN
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