How To Start Intermittent Fasting When You Work 12-Hour Shifts

I am so excited about the great feedback and questions I have received regarding intermittent fasting! Several of you were interested in learning how to implement IF while working at the hospital, especially during 12-hour shifts. 

I hope you had a chance to watch the YouTube video I did with Autumn on her channel Autumn Elle Nutrition! If not, you can watch it HERE

Today I am going into more detail and answering some of the more common questions I received since the video was posted.

Who are you and why I should listen to you?

If you’re new to my blog, Welcome! I am a CRNA living and working in Boston. I typically work 12-hour shifts, from 7a-7:30p most days of the week. Occasionally I rotate to nights from 7p-7:30a.

On my days away from the hospital, I am the creative director at a startup. I log 10-12 hour workdays there too. So, if I can figure out how to make this work with my schedule, I am confident you can too! 

My goal is to help you get started with IF no matter what your work schedule looks like. Let’s get to it!

Tips to set yourself up for success: 

I wrote a quick article about top tips for starting with IF, that you can check out HERE. If you don’t have time to read that, I’ve elaborated on some of those points here. 

The first tip I have for adopting intermittent fasting with a crazy schedule would be to start small and be consistent. 

Building the foundation: Start by taking the time to notice how you feel on your days off or on the weekends. Try to pick a day where you aren’t working or where you aren’t bombarded with a zillion tasks as soon as you wake up. You want to really tune into what your body is saying with minimal distractions. 

Whenever you start intermittent fasting, it’s super important to check in with your body. It’s important to notice how you are feeling as soon as you wake up. Are you feeling hungry? It is out of habit that you eat breakfast first thing in the morning? 

Try to tune into your body and it’s responses. This applies not just to food but also to hydration. How hydrated are you? Do you notice your hydration level? Are you drinking water before you feel thirsty? Are you mistaking your body’s need for hydration with thinking it needs food? What cues is your body sending you?

Fun fact: When we are thirsty or our body needs water (because we aren’t properly hydrated), the body will send signals to the brain that it needs food. The goal is to increase water intake, so if the body can’t get it from liquid, it attempts to get this needed water from food. For a great article on how to up your water intake through thoughtful food choices, check out THIS ONE.

Obtaining hydration from food is certainly less efficient than hydrating properly with water, but it does work (in a pinch) to get your body the water it needs.

Trying to find what works for you and learn what your body is trying to tell you isn’t easy at first. You’ve likely been ignoring your body’s signals for years; I know I’m guilty of this! Tuning into your body does get easier with time and practice.

This is the foundation work we all must do. Tuning in to your body will set you up for success with everything else related to intermittent fasting!

How much water do you need to drink every day? 

The general guideline for hydration is to drink half your body weight in ounces of water every day. So, if you are a 120 pound female, you would drink 60 ounces of water a day. Of course, you need to add additional water intake on days that you exercise or on very hot days when you are losing water via sweat or insensible losses. On days where you workout, add an additional 16 ounces of water minimum.

Yes, you will pee a lot. This gets better with time and your frequency will decrease as your body gets used to the increased hydration.

What window do you recommend starting with? 

I advise that you ease yourself into fasting by starting with an eating window that’s 12 hours. So 12 hours during which you can eat and 12 hours of not eating (aka fasting).

I find that starting with a 12-hour time frame should be pretty seamless. Likely if you are a shift worker, you’re already on a 12-hour schedule, so it can fit fairly easily into your lifestyle. This makes it simple to figure out what works for you and then you can slowly remove time from the eating window and extend the time in your fasting window.

How to adjust the eating/fasting windows?

Once you’ve figured out a good rhythm and pattern utilizing a 12-hour window, start to adjust your times. I would advise adjusting your window by a half-hour (or even an hour) each week. So if you start your eating window at 11 am, maybe try to wait until 11:30 or noon the next week. Go slowly and adjust your times using small increments. 

How to find that ‘sweet spot’ with your eating time? 

Ideally, you want your window to open and to start eating when you are hungry, but not to the point of feeling ‘starving’ yet. You want to make sure your body is primed and ready for food, and sending signals that it’s truly hungry. Don’t watch the clock or force yourself to eat if you aren’t hungry. 

The ‘exact right time‘ can depend on a variety of factors, like when the eating window closed the previous day, or what you ate during that time. As no two days are exactly the same, I recommend waiting for your body to signal that it’s hungry and wants food before you start the timer and open the eating window.

Tip: The initial goal is to achieve an 8-hour eating window and a 16-hour fasting window but it does take time to get there. Slow and steady is what will give you lasting habits and those lasting results!

Should I be tracking things during IF?

In the initial stages of intermittent fasting and while you are tweaking and adjusting your windows, I recommend writing down as much as you can. An old notebook or journal is perfect for keeping track of times, foods, etc. This way you have a source to reference for how your body is reacting to the fasting period, the eating window and the types of food you are eating. 

You will also be able to spot patterns more easily if you write things down. You’ll be able to see what foods your body is responding to and what foods are possibly upsetting your stomach. Writing things down can also help you stay consistent with your windows. I often forget when I open the eating window, so writing it down eliminates any confusion.

Important Reminder: Remember that you aren’t trying to eat continuously during the entire 8 hours of your eating window. You are just timing your meals so that you are eating them during a specific amount of time, but only when you are hungry.

What do I eat?

It’s important to choose healthy, fresh foods as much as possible while you are following intermittent fasting. A popular saying is “eat as close to the ground as possible”. This means, eat foods that are handled or processed very minimally from the time they are picked or plucked until the time you consume them. 

Another great way to think of this is to choose foods that remain as close to how Mother Nature created them. So avoid items that have been altered so much they no longer resemble their natural form. A Cheeto doesn’t really look like anything Mother Nature produced right? You get my point. 

Fresh fruits and vegetables are ideal. Avoiding processed and prepackaged foods is important. This includes so-called healthy snack bars and protein bars. (These deserve a post of their own regarding their true impact on health and nutrition so stay tuned for that).

What about night shifts? 

I am fairly consistent with my eating on the days I intermittently fast. I have a schedule that works well during day shift, so when I find myself working nights, I keep it simple by flipping my times. I just take the AM off the time and change it to PM. Easy!

For example: I normally have lunch around 12:30 PM when I am working dayshift, so I try to have lunch around 12:30 AM (just after midnight) when I’m working night shift. By keeping my schedule roughly the same, it’s easier for me to stay on track and keep things organized. 

It took a lot of trial and error and writing down So.Many.Things before I settled on this system, so give it a try and see if it works for you! 

What does your typical day look like? 

My typical day I wake up around 4:45 AM and do a workout or light cardio and stretching. I shower and start to get ready for my day at 5:30 AM. 

I make a keto coffee at about 6:15 AM and blend the ingredients right before I leave in the morning. This and water are my morning commute beverages.

Depending on the OR schedule, I typically get a mid-morning break. I don’t break my fast during this time because I am never usually hungry at 9 am. I drink water or reheat any remaining keto coffee. 

A great tip: Invest in a small portable frother to stash in your lunch bag. Frothers are great for blending everything after reheating. It’s not the same as the blender at home but it does the trick.

Breaking the fast (Meal One):

I wait until later in the afternoon, around 1 pm before I break my fast. If lunchtime comes early and I’m not hungry, I will drink more water or drink a mixture of apple cider vinegar and water. I try my best to wait until I truly feel hungry before I start eating. 

This is a strategy that also works great if you have late-night plans or a late reservation and need to shift the eating window later in the day.

The key here is to listen to how your body feels and whether you are truly hungry. It’s important to make sure that you are not just eating because you have a break or have downtime and are bored. 

There will always be snacks in the hospital or lingering in the break room, so being mindful about how you are feeling and your hunger levels can help you determine if you truly need food. This one step alone will go a long way to help you meet your nutrition goals.

Tip: Don’t try to make someone else’s ‘food timeline’ fit your body or your needs.

What about dinner? 

Typically my last meal is timed for after I get home for the day. I choose to meal prep over the weekend to prepare for the week ahead. This helps tremendously with timing and ensuring I reach for something healthy when I am too exhausted to cook. No more ‘I don’t have time’ or ‘I don’t have the energy’ excuses. We have definitely all been there!

Now, I just heat up a meal-prepped dinner when I get home. It takes less than 10 minutes and I know I am choosing something that will serve my health goals.

I usually eat dinner around 7:30 or 8 pm and my eating window closes around 8:30 or 9 pm depending on when it opened. 

Should those who work long shifts bother with IF? 

YES! I absolutely believe that implementing an intermittent fasting protocol is possible for healthcare professionals. It is something simple you can do that will have a direct positive impact on your life and health. It’s also easy to maintain once you get started. 

We spend our days taking care of others and putting everyone else’s health first. This is a small way we can ensure we are taking care of ourselves and making our health a priority every day. 

The first couple of weeks may be a little challenging and may even raise eyebrows from coworkers, but you will get into a rhythm fairly quickly and your body will respond to IF. Stick with it and trust the process.

Reminder

It’s important to stay consistent on your days ‘off’ from fasting. You can cycle in and out of intermittent fasting but make sure you are eating mindfully on the days you are not adhering to an eating window.

You don’t want to sabotage all the hard work you put in during your fasting days by eating junk food, processed carbs, or sugar on your ‘off days’. 

Remember, making healthy food choices is a good choice any day! Regardless if you are following intermittent fasting or not!

I hope this post helped answer some questions about how to get started with IF as a shift worker.

Have you tried IF before? Do you juggle long shifts or work nights?  What is your #1 tip for sticking with IF as a shift worker (or just sticking with IF in general)?  Leave a comment below and let’s connect!

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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