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

I am so excited about the feedback and questions I received regarding my posts intermittent fasting! Several of you were interested in learning more specifically how I implemented 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! I’m still getting used to being on camera, but it’s a fun video! You can watch it HERE

Today I’m sharing more details and answering the most common questions I’ve gotten since the video went live.

Who are you & why I should listen to you?

If you’re new to my blog: Welcome! I’m 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 small startup. I log 10-12 hour days there too. I figured out how to make IF work with my schedule, so I know you can too! 

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

Tips to set yourself up for success: 

I wrote a quick article about my top tips for starting IF, that you can check out HERE. Think of it like the ‘prep work’ before you fully dive into IF. If you don’t have time to read it, I’ve elaborated on some of those points here. 

The first tip for incorporating intermittent fasting with a crazy schedule is: start small and be consistent

Check in with your body: Start consciously noticing 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 million tasks as soon as you wake up. You really want to tune into what your body is saying, and how it’s responding, with minimal distractions. 

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.

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? Is last night’s dinner still sitting in your tummy?

Write it down! Maybe keep a journal or a notes section on your phone. Some helpful things to include might be, how late did you eat last night? What did you eat? Did you have any cocktails or wine with dinner? Did you drink a glass of water before bed?

Take notes on your food and hydration throughout the day too. How hydrated are you? Are you drinking water before you feel thirsty? Are you mistaking your body’s need for water with thinking it needs food? What cues is your body sending you and how are you reacting?

Fun fact: When we are thirsty or our body needs water (because we aren’t hydrating well enough), the body sends 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 the needed water from food. I wrote a fun article on how to up your water intake through thoughtful food choices.

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

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’ll want to add additional water on days you exercise or on hot days when you are sweating. (Oh those insensible losses.) On days where you workout, add additional 16 ounces of water to your hydration goals. You can always drink more if you feel thirsty.

Side note, you will be making SO many trips to the ladies’ room. This gets better over time and the frequent ‘trips to the powder room’ will decrease as your body gets used to the increased hydration.

What eating window do you start with? 

I eased into intermittent fasting by starting with a 12 hour eating window. So 12 hours where you can eat and 12 hours of not eating (aka fasting).

For me, starting with this time-frame was fairly seamless. Because of my shifts at the hospital, I was already used to thinking about things on a 12-hour timeline. I’m all about minimizing and streamlining.

Use this familiar schedule to figure out what works for you (meal spacing, hydration goals, etc) and then slowly remove time from the eating window.

How to adjust the eating/fasting windows?

Once you’ve figured out a good rhythm and pattern utilizing the 12-hour window, start to adjust your times. I adjusted my window by a half-hour (or sometimes an hour) each week.

So if you start eating at 11 am, maybe try to wait until 11:30 am or noon the next week before you ‘break your fast’. Go slowly and adjust your times using small increments. Slow and steady is what will help create lasting habits and results!

I know a lot of information recommends a 16/8 window (where you fast for 16 hours and eat for 8) but that doesn’t work for everyone. There are many studies that have shown a 12-hour fasting window is enough time to provide health benefits! So give yourself time and see what works.

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

In an ideal world, you want to ‘open the window’ and start eating when you are hungry, but not to the point of ‘starving’. Try not to watch the clock or force yourself to eat if you aren’t hungry.

Remember all the work you did in the beginning, to better listen to your body’s signals? Here is where it comes in handy! You want to make sure your body is primed and ready for food, and sending signals that it’s truly hungry.

I find the ‘exact right time‘ can depend on a variety of factors, like when I closed my eating window the previous day, or what I ate for my dinner meal.

Wait for your body to signal that it’s hungry and wants food before you open the eating window and start the clock. Oh, and write it down.

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 journal or the notes section on your phone is perfect for keeping track of times, foods, etc.

This way you can track how your body is reacting to the fasting period, the eating window, the types of food you are eating, your hydration levels, etc.

Writing things down will help you spot patterns more easily. You’ll be able to quickly identify what foods your body is responding to or what foods are upsetting your stomach. I found I was better able to predict the amount of energy I would have for a workout based on my meals from the previous day.

Writing things down will also help you stay consistent with your eating windows. A few *too many* times, I forgot when I opened my eating window, so for me, writing it down eliminates any confusion.

Important Reminder: Remember that you aren’t trying to snack continuously during the eating window (wether it’s 12 hours, 8 hours, or even 4 hours). You are simply timing your meals so that you are eating within a specific time slot.

What the heck 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 close to the ground”.

Basically, you want to eat foods that are handled or processed very minimally from the time they are picked, plucked, or harvested until the time you consume them. 

Another great way to think of this is to choose foods that still look the way Mother Nature created them. I try to avoid any items that no longer resemble their natural form.

A Cheeto doesn’t really look like anything Mother Nature produced right? Same goes for spray cheese in a can. Both things I love, but have eliminated from my diet.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are ideal. Avoiding processed and prepackaged foods as much as possible. I also recommend reading nutrition labels. You’d be surprised how many so-called healthy snack bars and protein bars are actually terrible for you. (These bars deserve a post on 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 super simple by just flipping my times. I just take the AM off the time and change it to PM.

For example: I normally have my first meal around 12:30 PM when I am working dayshift, so I try to have my first meal around 12:30 AM (just after midnight) when I’m working night shift.

It’s easier for me to stay on track and keep things organized if I keep my schedule roughly the same no matter what shift I am working.

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

What does a typical day look like? 

On a typical day-shift schedule:

Before work: I usually wake up around 4:45 AM and do a workout or light cardio and stretching. At 5:30 AM, I hop in the shower and start getting ready. 

By 6:15 AM, I am in the kitchen and whipping up a keto coffee. I blend the ingredients right before I head out the door. I try to drink my coffee and about 16 ounces of water during my morning commute.

At work: Depending on the OR schedule, I will typically get a mid-morning break. I don’t ‘break my fast’ or open the eating window during this time because I am rarely hungry at 9 am. I drink water or reheat any remaining keto coffee and just enjoy my break.

A great tip: Invest in a small portable frother to stash in your lunch box or work bag. Frothers are great for blending everything , especially if you reheat keto coffee. It’s not the same as the blender at home but it does the trick.

Breaking my fast (Meal One):

I wait until later in the afternoon, around 1 pm before I break my fast and open the eating window. If lunchtime comes early and I’m not hungry, I will drink more water or drink water with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar mixed in.

I try my best to wait until I actually feel hungry before I eat. 

This strategy also works great if you have evening plans or a late reservation and need to shift your 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. 

We always have snacks lingering in the break room, so being mindful about hunger levels can help determine if you truly need a snack or if you are just tempted because ‘its there’. This step alone can go a long way to help you meet your goals.

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

What about dinner? 

Typically my last meal is timed for when I get home. I usually 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 lying on the couch and too exhausted to cook.

Meal prepping helps me eliminate the ‘I don’t have time’ or ‘I don’t have the energy’ excuses. Instead, I just heat up a meal-prepped dinner. It takes less than 10 minutes and I know I am choosing something that will serve my goals.

I typically eat dinner around 7:30 or 8 pm and my eating window closes around 8:30 or 9 pm. 

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 easy to maintain once you get started and the benefits are numerous.

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

The first couple of weeks may be a little challenging and may even raise some 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.

One last thought

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 from 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 when you work 12 hour shifts.

Have you tried intermittent fasting? Do you juggle long shifts or a rotating schedule? Leave a comment below and let’s connect!

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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