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Gluten-Free on The Night Shift

Making the switch to a gluten-free diet while working nights? I’ve done it. Here’s what to know.

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Switching to a gluten-free diet is hard. But doing it while working nights? That’s extra tricky. I know firsthand—I was diagnosed as gluten intolerant at 20 years old while working rotating shifts at a hospital. Here’s what happened, along with the advice I’d give to anyone making the same transition. 

 

My gluten-free story

During my teens, I had a serious case of “mystery-itis” with weird pains, chronic vomiting, funky rashes, and more. After several workups showed nothing, I gave up on getting a diagnosis.

But then in my early 20s, I saw a new doctor who correctly surmised that gluten was wrecking my gut health. A series of tests confirmed it would be in my best health interests to cut out gluten completely.

At the time I received this health news, I worked as a switchboard operator at the local hospital, which required day, evening, and night shifts. I had been there for a year, so I had learned the ropes of rotating shift work—but this drastic diet change was a major curveball. 

I won’t sugarcoat it: I was very hungry the summer I gave up gluten. The gluten-free diet still had not gone “mainstream”. There weren’t any gluten-free options at restaurants yet and the options lined the grocery store shelves were limited. (And mostly tasted like cardboard.) 

At first, my packed lunches for the night shift were dismal and not very nutritious. I didn’t know what to feed myself so I ate a lot of bananas and sweet potatoes and frozen yogurt. Then I discovered Lara bars and lived off of those for a while. 

After 16 years on a gluten-free diet, I’ve got the hang of it. Here’s what I would tell my 20-year-old shift worker self.

 

Don’t get stuck on exact substitutions 

It’s tempting to rush out to replace your favourite crackers, cookies, cakes, and breads with boxed gluten-free versions. And while these are all available (and some are honestly very good), it’s a backward way to do things. 

Here’s why: many gluten-free products are short on nutrients and big on sugar, fat, and starch. And while there’s nothing wrong with any of those in moderation, it’s a mistake to assume that all gluten-free substitutes are “healthy”. As an extra kicker, they’re often very expensive and don’t always taste very good.

So while there are absolutely substitutes worth trying (find my favourites below), resist the idea that you need to fill your cupboard with boxes of gluten-free substitutes to feel full and happy. There’s a better way.

 

Start with whole foods

Now that I’ve told you to slow your roll on buying gluten-free substitutes, what’s a hungry shift worker to do? Start with whole foods. 

Find ways to replace some of the “canvases” that you’re used to using for everyday easy meals. These are often the carbs we know and love: sandwich bread, pasta noodles, crispy crackers, etc. The fact is that eating gluten-free requires taking a hard right from your normal eating habits. 

Try out different substitutions to see what tastes good and helps you feel full. Here’s what works for me:

 

  • Potatoes. A baked potato makes a great base for a meal and will keep you feeling full. Hashbrowns make a great base for breakfast or lunch. Sweet potatoes are nutritious AND filling.
  • Veggie “pasta”. While nothing truly replaces pasta, spiralized & sauteed zucchini and baked spaghetti squash make nutritious pasta substitutions. 
  • Rice. From basmati to arborio, forbidden to wild, rice is a great way to fill you up without bread or pasta. 
  • Rice crackers. These one-ingredient wonders are an amazing blank canvas. Try them with cream cheese and smoked salmon, curried tuna salad, or peanut butter and jelly. 

 

It’s okay if your meals are a little weird at first. By starting with whole food replacements, you’ll likely add more nutritious elements into your life. This is an amazing way to kick off a new way of eating. 

 

Embrace the bowl

Here’s one of my best tricks that I use at home and eating out: embrace the bowl. Poke bowls and those “green goddess” bowls are great examples. But you can take it even further. Love burritos? Keep the flavour and lose the gluten by choosing a burrito bowl. Love burgers? Skip the hamburger bun and make a burger bowl with lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles with ketchup and fries on the side.

 

Search out items worth buying

Is there a bigger lunch bag letdown than discovering an expensive gluten-free item you bought tastes quite similar to wicker furniture? You work hard all night for your dollars—no one wants to spend them on something gross or disappointing. 

Once you’ve gotten the hang of incorporating lots of whole foods into your diet, take the time to search out some treats. Eating GF can feel hard at first, so having some go-to yummy treats helps a LOT. Every few months, I take a few extra minutes while doing an online grocery order to peruse the latest GF items (and their reviews, if available). I just type “gluten-free” into the search bar and scroll the listings. I have found SO many good items this way. 

After 16 years of gluten-free eating, I have a long list of tried and true favourites. I’ve only included things I’ve tried and loved on this list. (I’ve included Amazon links where possible to show the packaging, but you may find better availability and pricing for some of these at your health food or grocery store.

Always check the labels before eating any of these products. Online ingredient descriptions are not always accurate (and sometimes companies will change ingredients without mentioning it).

 

Meal prep pantry staples:

 

Snacks to throw in your work bag:

 

Switching to a gluten-free diet is a process, often frustrating but necessary. Try approaching it with curiosity, seeking out new yummy recipes, taste-testing new products, and treating yourself with decadent GF deserts every once in a while. And remember, there are so many naturally gluten-free food items out there (loaded baked potato, anyone?)

Last updated: 2024-03-16

Lauren McGill

Lauren McGill

I work at the intersection of healthcare and storytelling. As a medical writer, I help healthcare experts publish content so they stand out as thought leaders.

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