Icon_Nurse.pngNurses and Nutrition

Nurses and their own Nutrition

As the population is weighing more, so are the nurses and their patients.

High stress, lots of responsibilities, and long shifts all play a role in increasing an RN’s waistline.

Evidence suggests that night shift work is a risk factor for increased Body Mass Index (BMI), including central obesity, and has also been linked with chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and cancers, placing nurses and other night workers at the frontline.

The mechanism lying behind these facts has not been fully explained; however, factors such as unhealthy eating behaviors (meal irregularity, higher animal fat, carbohydrate and protein intake with low dietary fiber consumption, snacking), low physical activity, disruption of the circadian rhythm and sleep deprivation, which may undermine processes related to metabolism and the feeling of hunger, are potential causes.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) promotes and focuses on healthy weight maintenance in order to achieve better health, and prevent diseases and conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes.

But 40% of the non-obese population have some form of metabolic disease, of which many aren’t even aware.

The ANA gives some advice such as eating a balanced diet, snacking less and moving more. All of those are good, but as shown above, there are other barriers, external factors, which prevent nurses from eating more healthful food.

Researchers who carried out interviews among nurses found that colleagues’ behaviors influenced their own. While discussions about healthy diet inspired them to opt for better food options, seeing co-workers eating junk foods made them crave such unhealthy options.

The disruption of the circadian rhythm was definitely a factor influencing eating choice, as eating unhealthy food was a way to stay awake and working at night was often paired with cravings.

In addition, nurses reported difficulties to opt for healthy food the day after the night shift and also barriers to exercise, as they often felt too tired and preferred to rest.

Other barriers to healthy eating habits are:

  • Nurses are too busy because of workload
  • Staffing level is too low
  • Overly short breaks because of workload
  • Catering facilities located too far from clinical areas (taking too long on the break time, no rest)
  • Limited availability and variety of healthy food options, especially outside of lunch time

There are initiatives at many hospitals to make changes that improve the nutritional landscape. Food can be an essential aspect of medicine.

The National Health Service (NHS) in England recognizes that nutrition is not only essential for nurses’ physical and mental health, but also for their optimum productivity.

It is therefore not only for nurses but also for the patients’ and employers’ benefits to improve the working environment and support healthy eating habits.

Nurses and their Patients

Nurses often provide nutrition education to their patients, especially to address the problem of obesity, but also by serving as role models.

“Research has demonstrated that nurses have concerns about both providing complex nutritional information to patients and patient perceptions of their body image”.  -Denise Reed

Indeed, people cared about body image, as they reported to feel less confident when being advised about nutrition and exercise by an overweight nurse than from a normal weight nurse. Also, when discussing obesity with their patients, overweight nurses felt self-conscious about their own body size and guilty to not be a good role models for their patients. On the other hand, slim nurses had concerns about lacking empathy or not having had an authentic experience.

This feeling of discomfort may be increased when nurses feel like they are lacking the knowledge to counsel their patients. For this reason, it is essential to help nurses establish healthy habits by improving their work environment and by providing them with appropriate nutrition education for them to be successful in their educator roles.

So, what can be done?

Nurse communities should advocate for better work environments. Nurses are advocating for better nutrition in healthcare environments - let's acknowledge and emulate their exceptional work.

As highlighted by the NHS in England, hospital managers should partner with local gyms, if no facilities are already available, and offer discounts to their workers. Exercise is good for health and also aids in stress reduction.

Other recommendations include:

  • Allow nursing staff to take regular meal breaks
  • Offer separate dining areas for clinical staff
  • Install more refrigerated vending machines with a selection of healthy and nutritious choices
  • Examine the current nursing educational level in relation to nutritional information and knowledge
  • Place informative nutritional information around healthcare sites and food services areas
  • Display nutritional labeling on food
  • Train nurses in basic nutrition

If you enjoy bringing and sharing baked goods/candy/treats to share with your colleagues, you still could do it by swapping them with more healthful options, for example:

  • Fresh fruit and nuts from the local farmers' market
  • Make your own healthier treats
    • Avocado chocolate cookies
    • Zucchini Brownies
    • Nana ice cream
  • Fresh vegetables to dip (e.g. carrots and celery) in healthy dips:
    • Home made Hummus
    • Home made Cashew cheese 

If you feel like something needs to be done and that changes are necessary, join our network of nurses by clicking here.

In the meantime, if you want to make some ‘real’ changes in your own life, join the 10 Day Real Food Challenge, which will provide you with useful tools and motivation to eat real food. Share your experience with your colleagues, you would maybe be surprised to see that you’re not the only one who wants to make some changes!  

There are also some resources on the IRN website that you might find helpful:

Infographic - A Calorie is Not a Calorie

Infographic - 10 Days without Added Sugar

Educational Resources

Great Examples of Innovative Approaches Nurses are Taking to Improve Nutrition and Fight Obesity

Obesity in the U.S. is a life threatening disease and one Corpus Christi nurse is on a mission to change it.

American Nurses Association - Fighting Obesity

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine - Nurses Nutrition Network

International Role of Nurses Fighting Malnutrition

Nurses on the frontline of the obesity epidemic

Nurse Practitioners and the Prevention and Treatment of Adult Obesity

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