Nutrition for Nurses … And Their Patients

Nursing can be stressful with the long hours, rotating shifts, sleep deprivation, and demanding physical labor. Not to mention nurses care for people at a vulnerable time in their lives. Given the physical and mental stress of nursing, it's crucial that you stay healthy. After a tough day or during a tough shift, it can be easier to just grab something from the vending machine or go through the drive-thru. But have you stepped back and evaluated the way your diet is impacting your physical and mental health? Or how you look as a role model for your patients?

Physical Impact

Nurses without healthy eating habits may suffer from lack of energy, fatigue, brain fog and mental health issues. Skipping breakfast or grabbing a quick, highly processed food can cause your blood-sugar levels to rise and drop too quickly, leaving you sluggish halfway through your shift. Over time, poor nutrition may lead to physical problems like obesity and diabetes, which may interfere with your ability to care for your patients.

Good eating habits are especially difficult to maintain if your schedule varies, particularly if you block schedule your days so you work several days in a row. Nurses can be so busy that they barely have time to use the restroom, so grabbing a healthy meal can be difficult. Cafeteria hours may be limited or not available on nights or weekends, leaving you with few other food choices if you did not pack something.

Long shifts and overtime can all lead to sleep deprivation. Nurses can easily become dependent on stimulants like caffeine. You can't keep yourself hydrated from just drinking coffee, tea or caffeinated beverages; you need to drink water as well. Without water, you become dehydrated and tired, or you may even suffer from headaches.

Mental Impact

Not only does nutrition affect your physical health, it impacts your mental and emotional health as well. Poor nutrition is linked to depression, anxiety and irritability, and may contribute to higher nurse burnout rates. There is a link between health promotion behaviors — like physical activity, healthy eating, sleep, and stress management — and improved personal resiliency and retention. Nurses who have a higher level of personal resiliency have lower burnout behaviors, such as job-related cynicism, emotional exhaustion, low personal accomplishment and low self-esteem.

Even when they are not hungry, some nurses may turn to food to relieve stress in episodes of "emotional eating." Check yourself before reaching for your favorite comfort foods. Are you eating due to a gradual increase in hunger or are you eating specific items suddenly in response to stress? Evaluating why you are hungry can help you prevent overeating. In addition, your body sometimes sends you "I'm hungry" signals when it really means "I'm thirsty."

Practice What You Preach!

With all the care you provide, it is often challenging to care for yourself. Putting your patients' well-being above your own can be a dangerous path. How can you provide the best care if you don't feel your best? Moreover, how can you expect your patients to follow your nutritional advice if you have poor eating habits?

An article titled "Healthy Eating for Healthy Nurses: Nutrition Basics to Promote Health for Nurses and Patients" says, "When healthcare professionals, such as nurses, care for their own health, it is reasonable to think that this will help them to better care for patients."

Focus on these five easy tips to improve your own nutrition.

  1. Plan and pack. Prepare food in advance for work days, and portion it into single-serving containers, or batch cook and freeze your meals.
  2. Drink more water. Take water to work. If you don't like the taste of plain water, add fruit or flavored powders. Drink water before reaching for snacks and think about logging your water intake.
  3. Allow one treat. Patients often bring food to show their appreciation and co-workers may make something special to promote teamwork. Give yourself permission to indulge in one small serving.
  4. Consider technology. Food delivery services or pick-up spots make it easy to have healthy foods available.
  5. Track what you eat. Set small daily goals like adding protein at breakfast.

It can be challenging for you — and your patients — to understand good nutrition simply because of the overwhelming amount of information. It's difficult to wade through the thousands of books, websites, fad diets, TV shows and apps, evaluating the credibility of the various pieces of information. Even if you take a nutrition course, it can be difficult to translate the principles into your personal life and your nursing practice.

The University of Rhode Island online RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program features a course focused on healthy eating habits called Public Health Nutrition, which will help you apply your nutritional knowledge to both your own health and the health of your patients.

Learn more about URI's online RN to BS in Nursing program.


Oncology Nurse Advisor: Eat Better, Work Better: Good Nutrition Keeps Nurses Strong All Shift Long

Harvard Health Publishing: Diet and Depression

NCBI: Nurses and Health-Promoting Behaviors: Knowledge May Not Translate Into Self-Care Nurse Burnout

The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing: Healthy Eating for Healthy Nurses: Nutrition Basics to Promote Health for Nurses and Patients

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