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Food intake affects fatigue management: Study

The timing of food intake during a night shift could impact worker wellbeing and fatigue according to a recent study undertaken by the University of South Australia.

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.

According to lead researcher and UniSA PhD candidate, Charlotte Gupta, the finding has the potential to help thousands of shiftworkers.

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

“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.”

In Australia, of the 1.4 million shiftworkers, 15 per cent (over 200,000) regularly work a night or evening shift. Working at night-time is reported to conflict with a person’s internal circadian rhythm, making it harder to stay focused and awake. Managing fatigue is therefore critical for workplace health and safety.

Over a seven-day simulated shiftwork protocol, the study assessed the impact of three levels: A meal comprising 30 per cent of energy intake over a 24-hour period – for example, a sandwich, muesli bar, and apple; a snack comprising 10 per cent of energy intake – for example, just the muesli bar and apple; and no food intake at all. Each was consumed at 12.30am.

The 44 participants were randomly divided 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 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 the different types of snacks and how they affect shiftworkers 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 shiftworkers are eating,” said Gupta.

“Lots of shiftworkers 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 shiftworkers stay alert, be safe and feel healthy.”

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