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How to Eat and Live Well: Expert Tips for Nurses

Nurses understand the basics of good nutrition but often are too busy caring for others to eat healthy and take actions for their own well-being. This is especially true during stressful and hectic times, like the current COVID-19 workload. 

Yet, during this pandemic, self-care has never been so important. So AMN spoke to some of the nation’s leading experts to get tips for nurses on eating and living well.  

“Nurses have high-stress jobs, with long hours; they sure should be eating good, nutritious foods, which we know includes lots of fruits and vegetables and whole grains,” said Melissa Ann Prest, DCN, RDN, CSR, LDN, in Chicago, Illinois, national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 

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Ways to Eat Well

Working long, tiring shifts often leaves little time for preparing and eating healthy food. 

“Frontline healthcare workers have a small window of time each day in which to eat and drink,” said Matt Kuchan, PhD, a research fellow and brain health scientist at Abbott in Columbus, Ohio. 

“This has become even more challenging in today’s environment, so it's especially important for them to focus on efficient hydration and on nutrients that both satisfy their hunger and meet their nutritional needs,” he added. “Four nutrients that should be prioritized are protein, healthy fats, fiber and, finally, vitamins and minerals.”

Here are some tips for nurses to increase their intake of more nutritious options:

  •   “Regular protein intake can help people feel full for longer periods of time throughout the day,” Kuchan reported. “To get more, try spreading your protein intake throughout the day and eating high-quality protein with each meal. Some high-quality sources of protein include poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, soy products, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds.”
  •   Fiber also helps people feel full and is good for digestion, Kuchan said. Foods high in fiber include whole grains, beans, legumes, and fruits and vegetables. 
  •   “Eating foods with healthy or good fats, including omega 3 fats—like nuts, olives, avocado, fatty fish and soybeans—can help you meet your daily calorie needs more easily, especially when you're on the go,” Kuckan said. Vitamins and minerals also are important. 
  •   Start the day with a meal; breakfast before a day shift or some dinner before an evening shift. 
  •   “Having a breakfast meal is encouraged,” Prest said. “Something hardy will give you energy to do your work.” She recommended preparing something the night before, so it can be grab and go.
  •   Take breaks during the day. Make sure to eat something during a break. If that is not possible, Kuchan recommended drinking a nutritional shake, such as Ensure, which provides balanced nutrition and nutrients to support the immune system. 
  •   Stay hydrated. However, Kuchan cautioned “not to overload your body with water though, because that may cause overhydration or too much water and not enough electrolytes. Drink until your urine is clear or a pale-yellow color, which indicates adequate hydration.” An electrolyte solution, such as Pedialyte, can help nurses stay hydrated, Kuchan said.
  •   Bring an apple or other fruit to snack on during a break. “Snacks are a great way to get in an extra fruit or vegetable,” Prest said. “Instead of a candy bar, go for an apple or an apple with peanut better.”
  •   Energy balls, which can made with ingredients like rolled oats, peanut butter, chia seeds, etc., are easy to make and consume as a snack during the day. 
  •   Smoothies are another great way to get in all sorts of fruits and vegetables. Prest recommended adding oats, flax seeds or walnuts to the smoothie. A smoothie takes minimal time to make and is something easy to bring with you. “It makes a great grab-and-go breakfast,” she noted. “You can make them the night before.”
  •   Think of sweets and red meats as a once-in-a-while treat, rather than part of a daily diet, Prest said. 
  •   Plan meals and snacks and make a list. Go to the grocery store with the list to keep on track with a healthy diet and to stay on budget. 
  •   Limit coffee intake to earlier in the day, so it does not interrupt sleep. Up to 400 mg of caffeine per day is considered safe for healthy people. Plain coffee has health benefits, including anti-inflammatory benefits, Prest said. 
  •   Eat foods that boost your mood and mental health, advised Jaya Jaya Myra, author of Vibrational Healing: Attain Balance & Wholeness. Foods such as dark chocolate, leafy greens, flax, banana, chia, hemp, salmon, turkey and dairy help the body produce serotonin and dopamine. She also suggested taking prebiotics and probiotics.  

A Few Tips for Nurses on Living Well

In addition to healthy food and snacks, making adjustments to other aspects of one’s life can prove beneficial. 

  •   Make self-care a priority, keep it simple and stick to the basics, Prest said. Make a conscious choice to care for oneself. It should be joyful. “If we don’t take care of ourselves, we cannot take care of others,” she added. 
  •   Do one pleasurable and relaxing activity each day, both Prest and Myra advised.
  •   Create a balance between home and work. 
  •   “Sleep is super important,” Prest said. Practice good sleep hygiene. Turn off the electronics and prepare to sleep about 40 minutes before going to bed. Do not read on a device while in bed. 
  •   Take a walk outside. Nature can be healing, Prest added. Researchers in Japan found being in nature can reduce negative mental health effects associated with the pandemic. Nature acts as a buffer to stressful events, said lead author Masashi Soga, PhD, of The University of Tokyo.
  •   Practice mindfulness, Myra advised. Concentrate on breathing slowly, which she said will slow down thoughts and decrease stress. 

During these troubling times, nurses can take steps to lead healthier and happier lives. It may sometimes seem difficult, but following these tips for nurses on eating and living well can pay off, in both your physical and mental health.

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