Weight loss program helps shift workers

Customized eating plans are key

It’s challenging enough for any employee to practice proper nutritional habits. But when they work the night shift, and breakfast time comes at 9 p.m., things can really get tough.

"Traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner are hard to manage when your work hours are the opposite of your family and friends," notes Suzanne Henson, RD, director of the EatRight weight management program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). "It’s easy to fall into bad habits."

What are those bad habits? "Obviously, due to their schedule, a lot of these people say their nights and days are different from ours," Henson explains. "Yet many times they feel they have to have the same meal habits as eight-to-fivers. What happens frequently is they may get off work at 7 a.m. and rather than having dinner,’ they may graze all morning, go to bed later, and never really adjust their eating schedules. When you’re not getting balanced meals, you’re eating snacks during the day and then just eating what is commonly found in vending machines during work, weight gain can be very common."

This can impact both health and productivity, says Henson. "One nurse with a cardiac problem was just not getting her weight off, and her supervisor told her she didn’t have the energy needed to do the job properly," she recalls. "For a factory worker, being out of shape or overweight can also put you at risk for injury."

Henson is helping shift workers in the Birmingham area deal with the challenges of shift work with her program, whose 400 some-odd participants cover the gamut of UAB and other area employees. "We serve the general community as well as central Alabama," says Henson. "Our classes include everything from working professionals to stay-at-home moms, from late shift nurses who work in the UAB hospital to factory workers. They come into class right after they get off work."

Everyone is different

The program is designed to accommodate the diverse schedules of the area working population. "We have six classes each week at various locations, with staggered schedules to accommodate different lifestyles and areas of town," Henson notes. Each class is 90 minutes long, with anywhere from 10-20 people in a class. The program consists of one class a week for 12 weeks.

"This is a comprehensive weight loss program," says Henson. "We cover different lifestyle topics — not only the types of foods you eat."

Shift workers are encouraged to think about their own unique work schedule and come up with an eating norm for that specific schedule. "For example, it may be hard for shift workers to get away to eat dinner or breakfast," says Henson. "For them, breakfast may be at 9 p.m., before they go to work at 11."

Food choices are stressed in the program — i.e., eating more fiber, drinking more water, and in general getting the most food for the fewest calories. "We talk about easy snacks that are healthy, too — a string cheese and melba toast pack, apple wedges with peanut butter, and so on," says Henson. "We also look for things that you can keep on you — even things like meal replacement bars. A lot of them are really candy bars, but some are healthy." (See the EatRight healthy meals chart, below.)

EatRight Healthy Food Guide
Menu Starch Meat/Dairy Fruit or Vegetable
Baked potato Tortilla & canned fat-free refried beans Low-fat cheese Salsa
Mexican dish Instant brown rice Canned black beans Canned stewed tomatoes
Pasta Pasta Parmesan cheese Canned spaghetti sauce
Soup  Crackers Canned soup Canned fruit
Peanut butter Raisin bread Peanut butter Banana
Cereal Cereal Milk Banana
Popcorn Low-fat popcorn Parmesan cheese Vegetable juice
Cottage cheese Crackers Cottage cheese Canned fruit
Beans & greens n/a Canned beans Canned turnip greens

Every worker is different, she stresses. "You have to look at your own situation — what a nurse working the third shift may be able to do could be different from a factory worker," she explains. "For example, an ER nurse can’t predict when she’ll be able to take a break. I’ve encouraged them to keep things in their pockets so they can grab a snack when they have a free minute. For factory workers, it depends on whether and when they get a break."

Henson challenges the workers with questions like, "Is it a reality for you to have three main meals and one or two snacks?" That’s typically what most people need, she says, but sometimes that’s just not realistic. "You may need to have five or six mini-meals spaced out during your day and night," she notes. "Just make sure they are not five or six large meals."

Henson is pleased with the success of the program. "At one point one of our insurance companies offered an incentive-based reimbursement program," she recalls. "People who attended 10 to 12 of our classes were much more successful."

[For more information, contact:

Suzanne Henson, RD, University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), 1530 Third Ave., Birmingham, AL 35294-1150. Telephone: (205) 934-4011.]