Long shifts and short intervals between patients can lead to missed meals and suboptimal nutritional choices. Strong caffeinated drinks and the lure of the snack machine can work in a pinch, but in the long run do not provide the adequate amount of healthy ingredients that nurses need to keep at the top of their game all day. Nurses can do a lot to help themselves stay energized throughout their shift and when not working. One way to do this is through proactive meal planning. If you pack your lunch and snacks, you are helping to ensure that energy levels stay even.


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Consider how well your car runs when it gets the proper fuel, regular oil changes, and has the engine serviced at the correct times, the concept also applies to your body. If you run on empty instead of having breakfast, and then scarf down lunch from the vending machine, you are not likely to feel all that great by dinnertime because your blood-sugar levels have risen and dropped too quickly. In addition, many of the products touted as healthy or fat-free are not really healthy choices at all. All of these “nutritional” products are really an illusion of choice. This was highlighted in a recent Nature article that noted how artificial sweeteners in prepared foods and drinks may actually contribute to obesity.1

However, if you start your day off with a protein and keep the energy levels even, not too high or low, you are more likely to put forth the most energy you need to care for others. Proteins such as eggs, lean meats, tofu, yogurt, low-sodium nuts, and seeds really go the extra mile when it comes to providing the key nutrients you need to keep your engine running.2 Not only will the right foods help physically, but they also help with the mental fatigue you may experience midshift or near the end of the shift.


It goes without saying that the job of the nurse, albeit very rewarding, can be stressful. So you should be mindful of triggers that might lead you to eat when you are not even hungry, to combat stress. Being aware of how hunger presents itself is one way to determine if you really are hungry. If the hunger comes on gradually, you are experiencing normal hunger; but if it is sudden and you crave specific comfort foods, that is considered to be emotional eating.3 Acknowledging stress when it presents itself and taking a minute to catch your breath will help you deal with the stress both in the moment and later, upon reflecting on your day. Also, hunger sometimes masquerades itself, and what you may be experiencing is thirst. Try increasing your water intake before a snack attack hits.


If you are feeling sluggish or your mind is foggy at times, try keeping a daily food journal, both when at work and off the job. Without judging the choices you make, write down all meals, snacks, and beverages. Then, as you make incremental changes to your food choices, write down how you feel or how your energy levels are affected. In addition, women of childbearing age, vegetarians, and those older than 65 years may benefit from a quality multivitamin to make-up for periodic shortfalls in diet; however, the multivitamin should not take the place of eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

You may not find resisting the vending machine easy at first, but in the long run you may find yourself feeling better and able to treat patients at a high level with all your renewed energy.

Lauren Davis is a medical writer based in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. 


1. Abbott A. Sugar substitutes lead to obesity. Nature. 2014;513(7518):290. http://www.nature.com/news/sugar-substitutes-linked-to-obesity-1.15938. Published September 17, 2014. Accessed September 23, 2014.

2. Protein to strengthen your body and mind: Making protein choices to boost energy and improve your health. HelpGuide.org Web site. http://www.helpguide.org/life/protein-to-strengthen-your-body-and-mind.htm. Accessed September 23, 2014.

3. Emotional eating: How to recognize and stop emotional eating.  HelpGuide.org Web site. http://www.helpguide.org/life/emotional_eating_stress_cravings.htm. Accessed September 23, 2014.