Erin Abraham, 31, is a holistic nutritionist and the wellpreneur behind Nourished Root. In this interview, Abraham shares nutritional advice customized for shift workers – from the importance of meal planning to why protein energy bites are a night worker’s secret weapon.
–– As told to Lauren McGill.
You work as a certified nutritional practitioner, culinary nutrition expert, and cooking instructor. Where did all of this interest in food come from?
My passion for food came from family traditions and cooking in the kitchen together. My father was Lebanese, so we had a lot of food traditions. When we would get together in the kitchen and cook, then sit down at the table and share meals together, those were good times.
How did you get into holistic nutrition?
Through my own health challenges. In my early twenties I struggled with mental health, and I realized the way that I was caring for myself could be better. I returned to my roots of growing, and cooking solely with whole foods.
After a few months of incorporating my traditional eating habits, I noticed a positive shift in my mental and physical health and overall wellbeing. I love to learn, so I dove into the research which lead me to the concept of holistic nutrition and the importance of a whole food diet.
Tell me about your approach to working with clients.
It’s very individual-based. Everybody is different. Everybody has different needs and so it’s about understanding what is going to be balancing for them.
Understanding their lifestyle, understanding their current habits, understanding their goals and what empowers them to want to take charge of their health – that is all part of it. We basically break it right down to what they are currently doing and look at how we can foster positive changes.
What are some of the specific challenges you address with shift workers?
My mom actually worked shift work when I was a kid and with her it was all about routine and scheduling. I see shift workers struggling with not having enough time to set themselves up to succeed when working. It’s not just about meal prep, or not making your lunch. It’s taking the time to set yourself up with a schedule for a well-balanced lifestyle and stick to it in order to avoid bad choices, and bad habits.
When you are working at night, your digestion is not working at its peak – during the night your body is in its rest state. To keep it working optimally is hard and often difficult to maintain. A routine and schedule will help your digestion, and help your metabolism run more smoothly.
Can you give us some specific ideas on how to eat for night shift?
It can be helpful to schedule your meals this way: when you come home from your nightshift, have your breakfast. When you wake up from your sleep, have your lunch. And before going to work, have your biggest meal.
During the night shift, it is helpful to eat every few hours. Smaller meals can encourage your metabolism to function more effectively.
Throughout the night, try snacking with protein – I highly recommend protein energy bites. The protein and fat in energy bites work together to sustain energy and to also fuel your cells. If you snack instead of having a heavy meal when you’re on the night shift, you are more likely to sustain your energy and it’s easier on your digestive system.
What about caffeine at night?
I suggest that if you need to have coffee, have one coffee but have it four to five hours prior to when your shift ends because coffee can sustain you and give you energy. When you go home, you don’t want to be wired. You want to be able to eat breakfast and have your sleep.
Any foods to avoid at night?
I highly suggest staying away from anything that has sugar additives, like pop or energy drinks. Those foods don’t do anything good for you. If anything, they’ll make you crash and burn. The night shift already impacts your internal clock and you don’t need to consume sugary, processed foods which will make matters worse.
I would suggest consuming carbs in moderation at night. So if you’re going to have a sweet potato, maybe try half a sweet potato instead. Use your palm to gauge portion size for things like nuts and seeds. Certain carbs can be heavy, so just be mindful of how it makes you feel during the day, because carbs will also make you feel like that at night.
You speak often about how intimidating nutrition, meal planning and cooking can seem. How do you help your clients overcome this?
We look at what they are currently doing, the barriers they are facing, and how it is making them feel. We assess their schedule, their budget and overall wellness goals. We dive into the basics of meal planning, and food preparation. We schedule their meal and snack time for ease.
From there, we look at meals that they can incorporate multiple times during the week that are versatile and nutrient dense. We consider the time it takes to meal prep because if there is a lot of preparation, people typically don’t want to do it. I encourage slow cooker meals and Instant Pot meals and promote leftovers.
We even dive into their grocery shopping process, and consider the shelf life of various whole foods. Breaking the process down, while keeping an open mind is key. Providing my clients with accountability and support throughout the process gives them confidence to move forward and make the best choices for themselves.
What is one mistake that you see clients making with their food choices? How can it be fixed?
People don’t make time to eat. People schedule their lives around everything else, but you should schedule your life around when you should eat because ultimately that food that you’re going to be sitting down and chewing is going to nourish and fuel your body. A lot of people don’t take that as a priority and everything else that goes with it, like grocery shopping.
Any final advice for shift workers?
Staying active is so important. It improves mood, and helps with stress management. Shift workers sometimes say, ‘I don’t have enough time to be active.’ But if you schedule it and do your movement prior to going into work, you’ll increase your energy and keep it stable throughout the night because you’ve done your cardio prior to going into your night shift.
The biggest thing is consistency – find a system that works for you, especially with meal planning. And for your days off, don’t overextend yourself with tons of things to do. Don’t burn yourself out, stay consistent with your ritual so that it allows for success.
Lastly, stay hydrated, nourish your cells and if you have to schedule time to drink water, that is okay. Set a timer and drink on!
Thank you, Erin, for sharing your wise and loving approach to nutrition, cooking and all things food-related. Check out more of Erin’s approach to health on her FB page @Nourished Root.
Photos: Mitch Jackson
I will definitely use these tips with my clients!
I’m glad you found Erin’s recommendations helpful! She is a gem.
Feel free to comment or e-mail ([email protected]) if there are any other topics your shift work clients might find useful.