Updated: May 5
By James Bradfield, Dr Luke Buckner Shane McAuliffe, Dr Minha Rajput-Ray and Prof Sumantra Ray
With Acknowledgements to Dr Dominic Crocombe, Prof Martin Kohlmeier and Lord Richard Balfe
The United Kingdom is soon coming up to a month in lock-down to try and slow the rate of spread of COVID-19. Whilst majority of the public adapt to the enforced social distancing and isolation measures, designated key workers continue working in uncharted environments, often being required to work longer hours and busier shifts. Key workers include those employed in educational services, food and essential goods production, distribution and sales, logistics, utilities, communications, provision of infrastructure and financial services, public safety and security staff, local and national government as well as those facing COVID-19 head on in health and social care services.
Whilst it is vital at home people utilise this opportunity to keep themselves physically and mentally healthy given the imminent risk of infection, it is pertinent to support our key workers in staying healthy during this time.
This is being done in a variety of forms – with displays of appreciation through weekly applause, signs in windows or on buses, whilst many companies provide discounts or freebies. It is important that key workers are given these privileges, yet also essential for them to maintain their health and overall functionality.
At the NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health, a collaborative think tank headquartered in Cambridge, a number of core members, and indeed some of the contributors to this article, are frontline healthcare workers, including Doctors, Nurses and Dietitians. Key workers often find that they do not have time to ‘eat well’ amidst a crisis such as this, which is understandable as many frontline staff are being asked to cover more frequent and longer shifts than before. This often results in erratic eating patterns, increased snacking on foods higher in calories, sugar and salt or generally not having time to prepare proper meals or indeed being over reliant on catering services are running on the bare necessities. We believe that the points below will be beneficial in keeping Key Workers in as best a health state as possible.
Preparation is key
The adage goes that if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. Cooking a healthy, nutritious meal is much easier when you have good ingredients. It may be difficult to access fresh, seasonal produce; however, with a few adjustments it may be possible to maximise the nutritional content of meals. Most of the major supermarkets now taking special effort to make accessing food easier for key workers. This ranges from staggered opening times, opportunities for ‘click and collect,’ delivery schemes and home delivery. Examples of simple tips include using tinned tomatoes as the basis of many varied dishes, good quality stock cubes tend to be lower in salt and still pack dishes like curries with flavour while frozen vegetables tend to be every bit as nutritious as those freshly picked.
Foods with long shelf lives are important as they provide food security in a time when you may find it difficult to visit a market or supermarket. Food such as rice and pasta can form the basis of a healthy meal. However, in order to reduce the possibility of ‘taste fatigue,’ try to include other foods too such as noodles, cous cous and potatoes. These are widely available and last longer than you might expect. When it comes to meat and fish, remember that most is suitable for freezing so rather than having to pick up something each evening on the way home, you can bulk buy, freeze and de-frost as required.
You are made up of 50 – 60% water…make sure to replace it
This might seem impossible with factors such as a busy shift, the wearing of different forms of PPE (personal protective equipment) and lack of storage space. Try where possible to bring a drink of water with you to work. Although you may not be able to carry water with you at all times, try to keep it somewhere accessible. Anecdotally, chilling the water beforehand may help to keep it refreshing over the course of a long shift.
Make a habit of drinking water regularly whenever you can. Studies show that even dehydration of 2% of body mass may lead to reduced attention and memory, meaning that hydrating throughout the day can quite literally help ensure that you can perform best and help care for your patients, customers or clients.
As an extension, make sure to not become reliant on caffeine. While you may feel it helps you to stay alert on shift, this effect is short-lived and in the long run will likely interfere with your sleep. This creates a negative cycle of poor sleep and tiredness which ultimately impacts your energy levels and ability to focus.
Healthy snacks to keep you going
Once again, preparation is the order of the day however consider that it may be now time to prepare for unusual or demanding working conditions, especially when there are limited options to take breaks. Bringing healthy snacks to work can reduce the likelihood of relying on sweet treats that provide little nutritional benefit. Again, the short term ’boost’ a sugary snack can provide may be satisfying at the time; however, is unlikely to improve concentration and overall energy levels for a sustained period. Instead consider snacks with slow release carbohydrates, quality protein and healthy fats. Good options include fruit, nuts, yogurts, cheese, humous and vegetables or even a small sandwich, ideally made with wholegrain bread. These are the types of foods that are likely to help you keep going for longer while giving your body the nutrients that it needs to maintain your health.
Tiredness often contributes to cravings for calorie dense foods. This is normal and is contributed to by alterations in hormone production and metabolism, both of which are caused by shifts in your body’s natural circadian (sleep-wake) rhythm as a result of a lack of sleep and irregular routine. This is not your fault - you are fighting against natural or physiological processes here but keep that in the front of your mind and try fight it to keep yourself focused and healthy.
Get enough restful sleep
Another tip that seems obvious but is important to emphasise wherever possible. In these unprecedented times, this is easier said than done. Aiming for the best possible recuperation under the circumstances can help your body re-charge, maintain immunity, and enable overall better functioning. This goes together with being physically active in that a healthy mix of the two is likely to set you up for your next shift as best possible.
For more information on what to eat on a night shift which is largely applicable to anyone working within the COVID-19 space please follow this link for an article which two NNEdPro members contributed to: https://www.bmj.com/content/365/bmj.l2143
For more information about COVID-19 including useful nutrition resources and a 10-point summary on diet, nutrition and the role of micronutrients, please visit the dedicated NNEdPro microsite at: https://www.nnedpro.org.uk/coronavirus