Emily Mongan

Recently McKnight’s covered the results of a national study gauging health statistics across different occupations, from entertainment professionals’ exercise habits to police officers’ blood pressure.

While the headline for our story worked in a lighthearted reference to “The Godfather,” the implications of the study were much less funny: Healthcare support workers fell short of four key factors of behavioral health, most notably diet quality. Nearly 75% of the healthcare workers surveyed had a poor diet, while more than half had higher-than-optimal body mass index.

My colleague Elizabeth Newman followed up the story with insights on how long-term care leaders can encourage healthy activity among their staff, starting with modeling healthy behaviors themselves. But what about the frontline healthcare workers with just a few minutes a day to eat, or employees whose stressful duties are taking a toll on their own health?

For that I turned to Paulina Lowkis, MBA, RD, LDN, CDE, a registered dietician and senior product manager in Medline’s nutrition and pharmaceutical division. Lowkis confirmed what I (and one McKnight’s commenter) suspected about healthcare workers’ generally poor performance in the study’s dietary categories — long shift hours, high nurse-to-resident ratios and stress aren’t doing them any favors when it comes to finding a healthy dietary balance.

“Nurses spend all their time focusing on the health of patients that they’re exhausted and find themselves not having time to focus on their own health,” Lowkis said. “Long hours and job stress limit the convenience to healthy foods. They often find themselves just grabbing what’s convenient to eat, such as food from the vending machine.”

Ahead of National Nurses Week, which runs May 6-12, Lowkis offered up some tips for healthcare workers challenged with fitting healthy eating into long shifts or short periods of time.

“First and foremost, a little planning can go a long way. The best way to use your limited time to eat is to not search for the nearest vending machine or run to the cafeteria,” Lowkis advised. “If healthcare workers can spend 15 to 20 minutes prepping at home, it’ll allow them the limited time they have during work to focus on eating.”

For workers with just a few minutes to eat, Lowkis recommended saving time by skipping the microwave and preparing foods that don’t need to be reheated.

“I love the idea of bento boxes to have several foods on hand to munch on when you have a minute away from your patients,” Lowkis said. “Not only can you have a variety of foods but also helps with portion control.”

Lowkis suggested this blog post for more than 100 ideas of “adult lunch boxes” that are easy to prep and take to work. One of my favorite food bloggers, Mind Over Munch, also did a 30-day series of healthy bento box recipes if you need more ideas.

For workers who are regularly assigned shifts with the same people, Lowkis had the idea of create a potluck setup, where each person brings one food group — fruit, vegetable, protein, or carbohydrate — to make a complete meal. And when all else fails, Lowkis recommended stashing quick meals at work such as oatmeal packets, frozen meals, low-sodium canned soup, string cheese, tuna, crackers and peanut butter.

“Lack of planning is one of the biggest mistakes. Processed food has poor nutrition value — it’s high in fat, sugar and salt,” Lowkis said. “It’s important to really try and plan ahead, and think about a few healthy items to bring to work. That way, you’re less likely to make mistakes.”

For employees on the night shift, Lowkis advised treating their schedule no different than a daytime work day, eating a meal before a shift, a light snack a few hours in, and a second meal a few hours after that. And as tempting as it may be, don’t skip a meal if you can help it, she warned.

“Often times when healthcare workers are busy, they’ll just completely skip meals. They’ll be working a long shift and maybe had only a few cups of coffee,” Lowkis said. “Skipping meals will impact a person’s metabolism and is associated with higher obesity rates, especially in females.”

If you need more inspiration, Lowkis will be sharing additional nutrition tips for National Nurses Week on Medline’s Voices of Healthcare blog. So with Lowkis’ suggestions in mind, and a stash of instant oatmeal packets on hand, hopefully healthcare workers score a little better on the next occupational health study McKnight’s reports on. At the very least, your body will thank you.

Follow Emily Mongan @emmongan.