Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Loose Your Weight - Shift Your Butt!

Is shiftwork making you fat? Quick-fix snacks might see you around the clock, but if it's health your're after, make the wee hours work for you.

Ever hit the wall while finishing a work report or surviving night feeds with a newborn? Then you'll know how irresistible biscuits and chocolate look tired eyes at 2am.

You can blame the slump on your circadian rhythm - the body clock which regulates hormones, energy and gastric activity, lowering temperatures at night to encourage rest and raising it at daybreak so you're more alert. It's fighting these strong circadian signals that leads shiftworkers to reach for a quick sugar fix or caffeine hit when their energy bottoms out.

"When you're tired, you crave sugar or carbohydrates because your body is after a quick source of energy," says Aloysa Hourigan, a senior nutritionis with Nutrition Australia, a non-profit nutrition education organisation. "So you're more likely to eat a handful of biscuits, a carton of hot chips or a savoury snack from a vending machine in place of a decent meal. These foods are high in fat, sugar and salt content but low in fibre. What's more, they're not very filling so en route home from work you're more likely to stop off for a takeaway hamburger."

Studies show that shiftworkers are not only more prone to be overweight, they also experience two or three times more gastrointestinal complaints such as constipation, ulcers and heartburn. Why? Lack of fibre, excessive caffeine intake and a diet high in saturated fats are the main culprits. Coupled with smoking and a lack of exercise, these poor dietary habits put shiftworkers in a high-risk category for developing weight-related health problems such as heart attack, stroke and diabetes. So how should shiftworkers go about dealing with work-related weight-gain traps? The trick is to be prepared.

1.Time your meals
Research suggests our bodies may not process carbohydrates as efficiently after 8pm at night, when digestive enzymes and metabolic rate are lower. So if you're working odd hours, you may benefit from eating your main meal in the afternoon, or in the middle of your waking period, then taking light, healthy snacks or mini-meals for evening breaks at work. Also aim to:
- Stick to your schedule regardless of what your family is eating - say no to pizza for breakfast, have fruits or cereal instead.
- Never skip a meal due to tiredness or lack of time. You'll only snack excessively and miss the next meal as you're still full.
- Eat a light meal containing complex carbohydrates such as a wholegrain cereal, bread or potatoes, a few hours before your shift ends, so you won't be woken by hunger when trying to sleep later.

2. Combat snack attacks
Nutrional research suggests the metabolism starts to slow after five hours with no food; after more than 14 hours, your body may shift into fat-storing mode. To get around this, stock your bag with healthy chewy snacks - chewing helps tell your brain to turn off hunger signals. Try:
- An apple or homemade fruit salad
- Carrot sticks and cottage cheese
- Dried fruit and nuts in pre-packaged boxes so you can track how much you eat.

3. Prepare meals in advance
Steer clear of high-fat canteen foods such as creamy sauces and deep-frieds foods as these can contribute to raised cholesterol levels. "White rice and pasta should be avoided as they have fewer B group vitamins than wholewheat counterparts," says Hourigan. Instead you should:
- Stock a drawer with quick-fix, pre-packaged and non-perishable foods low in fat, salt and sugar, such as tinned tuna, baked beans, rye crispbreads, nuts, rice crackers, low-GI cereal and soy milk.
- When preparing soups, stews or bolognaise, cook extra and freeze it in small containers to microwave at work.

4. Do your digestion a favour
To avoid heartburn or nausea, don't interrupt precious sleep after a shift. So:
- Keep portion sizes small, limiting acid secretion, which leads to indigestion.
- Minimise spicy foods, which can aggravate the lining of your stomach.
- The high-fibre content of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans and whole-grain breads will help you avoid constipation.
- Eat lightly between 10pm and 6am and don't eat a large meal shortly before bed.

5.Keep hydrated
Due to your temperature dropping and body functions slowing at night, shiftworkers often feel less inclined to drink. "Dehydration not only makes you more tired, it can cause thirst and hunger mechanisms to get confused so you feel ravenous when, in fact, you just need to drink," Hourigan warns. To keep up fluids:
- Take two half-litre water bottles to work and sip slowly through your shift.
- Drink a glass of water whenever hungry.
- Limit your intake of caffeinated drinks (cola and coffe) - they cause frequent urination and after stomach acid balance.

6. Work it out
As you're often asleep or at work when you friends are up and active, it's hard to get together for a social game of tennis or to exercise. Garry Egger, Adjunct Professor of Health Sciences at Deakin University suggests a few ways to work out:
- Accumulate 30 minutes per day of exercise by doing three 10-minute blocks, such as walking to the local shops.
- Invest in a piece of equipment such a treadmill that you can use at home to keep fit, when other people are sleeping.
- Exercise with a work buddy who keeps similar hours and will keep you motivated.
- Increase your incidental activity by taking the stairs instead of the lift, or lapping the building during your break.

7. Sleep tight
Tiredness weakens willpower and makes you more likely to reach for a snack. So:
- Stick to consistent sleep hours every day, even on your days off.
- Unwind for the first 10 minutes in bed by stretching and releasing every muscle group in your body to promote better sleep
- Wear a sleep mask and earplugs to help block out distractions.
- Avoid alcohol and exercising two hours before bed, as these may slow sleepiness.

Now it's time to get to work: shaft the snacks, shift the weight and shape up!


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