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Nurses and Nutrition: You CAN Eat Right at Work


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By Linda Beattie, contributor 

It is just after midnight, your shift is well underway and there is a long list of patients waiting for your help. Who has time to eat? Besides, it's hard to find nutritious food at work and you're trying to cut back, right? Don't fool yourself—skipping a meal is one of the worst things you can do for yourself, and there are some healthy options.

Nurses usually learn about good nutrition in their undergraduate studies, but the reality of shift work and the hectic pace at the hospital or other health care setting can make it hard to follow even the most common-sense principles. Hospital food service programs haven't helped much in the past, either.

Thankfully, nutrition experts are teaming up with food service managers to make more healthy and tasty choices available for all hospital food patrons—including patients, visitors and staff—and to offer advice to their health care colleagues.

"At hospital cafeterias, we've really made it a point to develop more nutritious hot entrees, grab-and-go options, salad bars and healthy snacks. When we're talking about nurses eating healthy, it can be a real challenge because of their schedule," said Dee Sandquist, MS, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and director of nutrition, weight managment and diabetes at Southwest Washington Medical Center in Vancouver, Washington.

"Nurses need quick choices," she continued. "They need good snacks available and they need to be careful not to get over-hungry, because that can cause them to overeat or make less healthy choices."

A 2005 report from the Healthy Hospital Food Initiative (HHFI) found that the majority of hospitals are trying to offer some healthier food choices, although there is a lot of room for improvement. All hospitals surveyed reported offering at least one reduced-fat product and one vegetable side dish daily, and more than 80 percent offered whole-grain products, sugar-free snacks, fresh fruit and a daily offering of a low-fat entrée or side dish. However, less than one-third of the hospitals offered either a salad bar or a low-fat vegetarian entrée on a daily basis.

Whatever the work setting, nurses can get help through on-the-job wellness programs, ask staff dieticians for advice, or follow these simple tips:

10 Tips for Healthy Eating at Work 

1. Don't skip meals. "It is important to eat regularly," Sandquist pointed out, "both for energy and to avoid excessive hunger."

2. Keep a healthy snack close by in the staff lounge. Some good choices include fresh fruit, a small bag of nuts such as almonds, carrots, dried fruit, tomato juice, tuna in single-serving packet, yogurt or a granola bar.

3. Get as much sleep as possible. People who are sleep-deprived tend to be hungrier and are at risk of overeating, according to Sandquist.

4. Don't use food as a "pick-me-up." Some nurses who work the night shift admit that they eat more often to help them stay awake. Sandquist encourages nurses to avoid overeating by choosing healthier alternatives, like taking a walk around the floor or drinking some water instead.

5. Choose wisely at the cafeteria and not just in the hot food line. "Most hospitals have salad bars now," said Sandquist, "but be careful to choose lower calorie dressings, avoid croutons and excessive cheese, and go easy on nuts and seeds. Also, watch out for the salads with dressing already in them."

6. Build a healthier sandwich. Whether you use the hospital's deli sandwich bar or are "brown bagging it," Sandquist offered a few recommendations, "Choose whole grain breads, use no- or low-fat mayo, and watch your portions. Also, choose lower fat meats, such as turkey or breast of chicken."

7. Add some crunch. "Include fresh vegetables, fruit or a salad with your entrée," suggested Sandquist, "not just because they are good for you, but adding something crunchy can help you feel full."

8. Avoid most vending machines and fast food, despite the convenience. The HHFI survey found that 17 percent of hospitals have a fast food enterprise on site, but many hospital communities are advocating for their removal, as well as for healthier vending options. If you do partake on occasion, the same rules apply for choosing low fat items, whole grains, and more fruits and vegetables.

9. Don't overindulge on goodies, even when colleagues or appreciative patients want to share their baking skills. You don't have to completely abstain, however. "It isn't really about good food or bad food, but how you incorporate the occasional food or snack," said Sandquist.

10. Remember that food is just part of the health equation. "It is important to start making small changes in other areas to include more physical activity and develop a healthier lifestyle," advised Sandquist.

For more advice on nutritious eating, try these resources: 

Action Guide for Healthy Eating
From the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, this simple online guide makes it easy to fit low-fat, high-fiber eating into busy schedules.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2005)
Published every five years by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA), these guidelines provide authoritative advice about good dietary habits that can promote health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases.

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