Better Eating Can Help Nurses Fuel Well for Life at Work and at Home

Making small improvements to feel stronger and more energetic

nursing wellness nutrition

Hillary Hart, RDN, LD, CDCES, knows that nurses have special challenges when it comes to leveling up their nutrition game. They work long shifts, during which meal breaks can be unpredictable, and they arrive home tired – perhaps too tried to start cooking a balanced meal.

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But Hart also knows that better choices are available even to busy nurses, and that choosing wisely can help them feel better. She has seen it happen.

As a Cleveland Clinic registered dietitian and diabetes educator, Hart spends her days helping patients and other caregivers better understand nutritional choices. Together, they brainstorm ways to make positive lifestyle changes and address concerns about weight. When working with nurses, she says, the goal often has little to do with introducing nutritional facts.

“Most nurses come to me and say ‘I know what I need to do, I just have to do it,’” Hart says. “I’m there to be their coach and find tips and tricks and strategies.”

That’s exactly the role she filled years ago with a labor and delivery nurse who had struggled with her weight for most of her life and wanted to become healthier.

“We started her on a Mediterranean eating pattern, which can be interpreted in different ways. For her, it meant adding as many vegetables to her plate as she could. Her plate became mostly vegetables, so it had a ton of fiber, and she added a little bit of protein and a little bit of carbs,” Hart says. “That was her way of taking control of her eating.”

As the nurse gained a healthier diet, she started losing weight, which in turn motivated her to increase walking as exercise and eventually to join a gym. Those habits stuck, Hart says. “She started with a little change, and over time, everything fell into place.”

Hart is a big believer in the “small changes” model for anyone who want to improve eating habits as a way to bolster overall wellbeing.

Build structure around food and eating

Introducing more solid habits around food is one of the pillars of Hart’s approach.

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“It’s really important for nurses to try to get a breakfast, lunch and dinner in. It’s like the foundation of a house,” she says. ”I can’t tell you how many people I talk to who don’t eat breakfast.”

Fueling up at the start of the day signals the metabolism to kick into gear and helps the body adapt to life’s stressors. Conversely, going without food can make for a sluggish start. For nurses, this is exacerbated by the unpredictability of the midday meal.

“Unfortunately, nurses sometimes have a hard time stopping for lunch,” Hart says. The cure: Pack grab-and-go food such as nuts, fruit and string cheese that can be eaten quickly as a lunch.

“If we skip a meal or go a long time without food, and we become starving, then that next meal may be huge because we want to eat anything in front of us,” Hart says.

Eating regular meals – sitting at a table with others, when possible – helps the body and mind approach food with more predictability and moderation.

A case for planning, packing and tracking

Nurses who plan and pack nutritious lunches, or at least know what the cafeteria is going to serve and make a health choice in advance, are likely to eat better over the long term than those who arrive at the burgers-and-fries counter with only their burbling stomachs to advise them.

Ideally, meal planning can be done when you’re relaxed and have time to think out the week, Hart says. Likewise, she advises being smart about time in the kitchen.

“Whenever someone is cooking at home, it’s super helpful to make as many leftovers as possible,” she says. ”I always tell people to double the portion of whatever they’re making so they aren’t having to make multiple meals.”

But even having the forethought to stock up on a few frozen dinners at the grocery store can help you eat more healthfully.

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“I’m probably the only dietician who you’ll hear say this, but frozen options can be really helpful when you’re on the go,” Hart says. The upside: They’re easy to prepare, portion-controlled and have more nutrients than the bag of chips that might tempt you from the vending machine. “Just be sure to watch the sodium,” Hart says. “You want them to have less than 600 mgs of sodium if possible.”
Hart also believes that short term use of food journals or trackers can bring awareness to what is actually being consumed in a day. Apps like MyFitnessPal make it simple to record food, which in turn can offer insights about where changes need to be made.

Paying attention to stress relief

Emotional eating is very common, Hart says, and while it’s nothing to be ashamed of, it might be something to manage. “Food is everywhere and it’s cheap, so it does become a go-to for people when they’re managing stress,” Hart says.

She coaches people to respond to the urge to eat in two ways:

  • Slow down and bring awareness to feelings of hunger outside of planned mealtimes. Is the desire for food truly hunger or is about alleviating fatigue, boredom or other challenging emotions?
  • Build a list of alternative actions that can help relieve stress. Can you go for a short walk outside? Is there tidying up that can be done? If you’re at home, can you paint your nails or dive into a hobby?

Thirst sometimes camouflages itself as hunger, Hart notes, so it also pays to stay hydrated. This is especially true as we age; over time, the body becomes less likely to feel thirst.

In with a healthful focus, out with shame

Among changes she has seen in the field of diet and nutrition is a new emphasis on health over weight. While letting go of excess weight can lighten the stress on muscles and joints and allow for more overall energy, new thinking emphasizes health at every size and aims to remove shame around body size and food.

“The emphasis is moving away from dieting, which had been ingrained in our heads since the 1960s and ‘70s,” she says. “A focus on health is more patient-centered. The last thing you want to feel is shameful.”

She encourages people to enjoy their food and to focus on managing habits.

“A lot of times when people meet with me, they think I’m going to say ‘Stop eating pizza.’ We have pizza at my house every week, because we love it,” Hart says. “I tell people that they can keep eating everything they love, but they have to do it strategically. So maybe instead of pizza several times a week, it’s once a week, or maybe it’s one slice or two instead of three or four. And they add healthier things in, so they don’t feel deprived.”

Positive changes of any kind will help, Hart says.
“People think they have to uproot their lives or their lifestyle,” she says. ”It’s not true. Just a few small changes over a few weeks can really make an impact. Wherever you’re starting from, every improvement is awesome.”