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Balancing Your Lifestyle in Healthcare: Eating Your Way to the Top

healthy food choices for healthcare workers

There is no way around it; a clinical job requires one to be on-the-go from the moment one walks into work until he or she leaves the hospital. For centuries, and in most cultures, feeding oneself has been considered an important opportunity to relax, slow down, stop working, and sit down for a fulfilling and nourishing meal. But the modern hospital lifestyle conspires to eliminate all of that. Most clinicians do not have protected rest and/or meal times. Consequently, we begin to eat poorly, we skip meals, we grab what we can when we can, we attend meetings for the free pizza, and end up eating it 12 hours later when it is indistinguishable from the cardboard box in which it arrived. Coffee ceases to be a drink we enjoy and becomes a necessary stimulant. In short, our nutrition and our long-term health go out the window when we put our work first and our nutritional needs second.

The undeniably ugly truth is that healthcare professionals are rarely the “picture of health.” In fact, a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine showed that our obesity rate (35%) is higher than the national average. What’s more, healthcare as an industry has higher obesity rates than most other industries (with the exception of bureaucrats and law enforcement/security guards). So whatever happened to “practicing what we preach”?

We have lost so much perspective in what the points of ‘health’ and ‘healthcare’ are, that we are now losing even our credibility in our professions. But it doesn’t have to be like this! We know more about how the human body works than the average American. While millions in the public are being seduced by flashy gimmicks and fad diets that do more harm than good, we can start taking scientifically-proven steps to improve our overall health and wellness. Lowering our weight becomes a fantastic side effect to the measures that we take. Consider the following seven strategies, and ask yourself if you are ready to make a significant and sustainable improvement to your health once and for all:

  1. Spare a Thought For Your Body. Simple mindfulness about what you plan to feed your body for the next 24 hours is an excellent start. Do you need to go buy food at the supermarket to avoid relying on fast food tomorrow? Perhaps you have time tonight to prepare lunch for the next couple of days. Learn to be mindful of your nutrition.
  2. Plan and Shop Accordingly.  On your day off, have a meal and then plan your grocery shopping for the week. While at the store, follow your list to the letter. Try shopping on a full stomach to reduce impulsive and unhealthy purchases. This will save you time, money, and extra calories!
  3. Pack Your Work Meals.  Packing your lunch and/or dinner gives you control of the most risky meals of the day. While packing, be sure that half of your meal contains fruit and vegetables, and the other half has a fair amount of protein like cheese, ham, chicken, turkey, or beans.
  4. Don’t Skip Breakfast.  Making the time to sit down and have a decent breakfast is a matter of recognizing the undeniable fact that your health is the number one priority. Make sure you go easy on the bread and cereals. Instead, include a source of lean and healthy protein such as eggs, along with some vegetables or fruits. It will give your entire day a feeling that you are in control, that you are fueled for it, and that you are not endlessly playing catch up with your own life.
  5. Preemptive Eating.  If you will be attending a meeting where there will be food, then plan well ahead of time and decide if you plan to eat the food provided. If you will, then go there without guilt, grab a small plate, and serve yourself a reasonable portion, moving away from the remainder of the food. Eat slowly and engage in the topic of the meeting. Do not consider getting up for another serving until you’ve waited 20 minutes since you finished your plate. Chances are, you will feel satisfied by then.
  6. Prepare For An Attack.  Hospital life is unpredictable, so plan ahead and pack healthy snacks for hunger attacks. Keep a few healthy and natural nut bars in your locker or bag only for when you suspect that you will have to skip a meal.
  7. Watch Your Drinks.  Simply swapping soft drinks for water or flavored water drinks can cut your overall caloric intake by a few hundred calories a day.

Remember two important facts: It is far better to make small but sustainable changes that you will be able to maintain than to try a crash diet that will inevitably lead to a rebound sooner or later. Secondly, it is far easier to cut down on excess food than to try to burn it all with exercise, so it makes sense to get your nutrition under control as a top priority. What are some of the strategies that you have already implemented into your clinical lifestyle? What has worked and what hasn’t?

Source: Prevalence of Obesity Among U.S. Workers and Associations with Occupational Factors.  American Journal of Preventative Medicine, Volume 46, Issue 3, Pages 237-248, March 2014.

Previous article from this series: Balancing Your Lifestyle in Healthcare: Sleeping on the Job.

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About Victor Peña-Araujo

Dr. Victor Peña-Araujo (BA, MD [MB, BCh, BAO], MRCS) has a decade of clinical experience in medicine and surgery and completed his basic surgical training program at the prestigious Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. During this time he endured several 36-hour shifts a week and regular 56-hour shifts on top of the regular 12-hour weekdays where he simultaneously covered the wards, ICU's, emergency and operating rooms as the most senior in-house pediatric surgeon. Theses experiences have given him a deep appreciation of the work hospitals require of their staff day after day. Dr. Peña is the founder of ELITE Personalized Health, LLC, a new and innovative online boutique venture offering one-on-one, evidence-based health coaching to busy professionals. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and twin daughters.