Whoever invented the concept of “breakfast, lunch, and dinner” deserves a hearty handshake from anyone who has ever tried to get their diet under control.
After all, a little structure — be it three squares daily (and maybe a couple snacks), intermittent fasting, or more involved plans such as Beachbody’s 80 Day Obsession Timed Nutrition — goes a long way toward giving us the right foods at the right time to help us reach our goals, whether it’s weight loss, performance, or plain ol’ good health.
Unfortunately, one caveat of this structure is that you keep a fairly normal 9–5 schedule.
When and how much to eat gets confusing quickly if you don’t sleep 7 or 8 hours at night and stay awake during the day.
This can happen for a few reasons: Typically it’s because you work the night shift, the swing shift, the 24-hour shift, or some other terrible shift your employer has devised to torture you.
(Another reason for irregular hours is that you’re a vampire. If this is the case, you typically have your diet sorted out, so this article isn’t much use to you.)
But if you’re among the living, we’ve come up with a few guidelines to help you figure out how and when to eat when you work weird hours.
But First, Sleep
Before we dig in, though, let’s go slightly off-topic and discuss sleep. It’s important to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night for so many reasons.
Among other benefits, sleep is prime time for muscle recovery and building. It also helps regulate the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin, both which are important to appetite control.
If 7 to 8 hours a night can’t happen, at least try to take naps. While nothing truly makes up for a good night’s sleep, a 2008 British study shows naps to be more effective in dealing with afternoon drowsiness than caffeine.
Naps can also ward off fatigue for those forced to stay awake for long hours.
Got it? Cool. Now here are those guidelines:
If you wake up at odd hours but still keep a consistent schedule…
Start your eating day when you wake up. If you crawl out of bed at 6PM, that’s your morning. Eat accordingly.
This is ideal for people who consistently work the night shift. Just like the rest of your life, day becomes night and night becomes day with your diet.
If your schedule shuffles around but you still get 8 (or so) hours of sleep daily…
Reset your plan at midnight. In other words, just make sure you get all your meals for each day in within a 24-hour period, starting at 12:01AM.
This might mean that some days are breakfast, sleep, lunch, and dinner, while others are breakfast, lunch, sleep, and dinner. Just make it work for the day and reboot at midnight.
If you need to stay awake for a prolonged period (18–24 hours)…
You need to be a little more strategic. Here’s a six-step plan.
- Eat normally for the first 12 or so hours.
- Don’t eat for the next 4 to 6 hours. Normally, this is part of the time you would be sleeping, so if you can work a short nap in here, great.
- After that, start eating the next day’s meals. It should be one or two meals.
- Unless you’re going for a Guinness World Record, you should be done working, so go to sleep!
- When you wake up, finish the rest of the meals for the day you started before you slept.
- Make a point of going to bed early this day.
The Bottom Line
There’s no one-size-fits-all hack for dealing with unusual working hours. Just like other aspects of your life, you’ll need to improvise and learn as you go, but hopefully, with this set of tips, you should be able to find the right solution for you.