Healthy Eating for a Healthy Nurse

Maintaining good health and proper nutrition is difficult even in the best of times. Making sure you get all the right nutrients, consume the correct number of calories, enough exercise, and enough sleep can seem like an impossible task. For a nurse, it can be even more daunting. Irregular work schedules and unpredictable work days can make creating an exercise routine, making nutritious home-cooked meals, and sleeping enough hard to accomplish

However, it is absolutely imperative that nurses maintain good health. It can be very difficult to care for patients if nurses are constantly getting sick or have a hard time getting around at work. While there are a lot of factors to consider when thinking about overall health, this article will focus on healthy eating. Eating is a central aspect of health and what/how one eats affects all areas of life; therefore, this is an easy place to start learning how to take better care of your own health. Here are a few things to consider when making healthy changes to your diet.

Eating Myths

Some people go to the gym every day for hours in order to get in shape. They might work out for months, yet never see much of a change in their body or their overall health. Even if some change is noted, blood pressure and cholesterol levels may reveal that while they look healthy on the outside, the inside is not. When taking a closer look at eating habits, the reasons for this becoming obvious. It is virtually impossible to be healthy if you are not eating healthily, even if you exercise every day. The phrase “abs are made in the kitchen” rings true; even if you are building muscle at the gym, what you eat could prevent that layer of fat from disappearing, so you’ll never see those muscles. A healthy diet is the quickest and most reliable way to lose fat and increase overall health.

Even if you aren’t trying to lose weight, what you eat is still important. Healthy bodies require a balance of healthy carbohydrates, healthy fats, and lean protein along with appropriate vitamins and minerals.

The Glycemic Index

The Glycemic Index (GI) is a tool that assesses the effects of foods on blood sugar levels and insulin demand. Foods with lots of sugar, like a candy bar, fall high on the index, indicating that it will make blood sugar rise quickly and increase demand for insulin release. Foods with lower GI numbers are slowly digested and the carbohydrates (sugar) more slowly release and absorbed, meaning the blood sugar levels rise only a little and very slowly. This can prevent too rapid a rise in blood glucose.

Finding the right balance is key. A rise in blood sugar can often have a stimulating effect and increase mood, while too low of a blood sugar level means your energy and mood drops as well.

Carbohydrates (Carbs)

It is important to note that our brain relies on glucose (sugar) as its sole energy source, so having a low-carb diet (a current popular low-carb diet is known as ‘keto’) as a nurse often isn’t the best choice. Eating little to no carbohydrates can result in extreme fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Instead, you should focus on eating the right carbs and sugars. Whole fruit (not juice), whole grains, and some vegetables are good sources of slow-burning carbs that will give your brain the energy it needs without adding too many calories.

Protein

Bodies need protein to break down into amino acids, which it then uses for other purposes. For example, the amino acid tyrosine has recently been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, something that nurses can surely benefit from. It can also help with concentration and focus, another necessity for successful nurses. To eat enough protein, try to incorporate fish, eggs, and small amounts of lean meat into your diet. Beans, lentils, spinach, and broccoli all have good amounts of protein as well if you follow a more plant-based diet.

B Vitamins

Folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, has been the center of attention in recent years, due to its association with the prevention of depression. In the human body, low levels of folic acid can cause decreased levels of serotonin, a necessary hormone for regulating mood. The lower the amount of serotonin, the higher the prevalence of depression and anxiety. Nurses are already susceptible to depression and anxiety simply due to the nature of the job, therefore it is important to have adequate folic acid intake. Food rich in folic acid are vegetables, fruit, seeds, and nuts.

Final Thoughts

There are many more things that you can do to make sure you are eating healthily, but if you focus on the above list, you’ll already be on the right track to getting and staying healthy. Make sure you also avoid highly-processed and fast food, for the most part, and just a few small changes will get you going on your journey to better health.

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Dr. Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D, RN, CNE

Dr. Jenna Liphart Rhoads is a registered nurse and a nurse educator. She earned a BSN from Saint Francis Medical Center College of Nursing and an MS in nursing education from Northern Illinois University. Jenna earned a Ph.D. in education with a concentration in nursing education from Capella University where she researched the moderation effects of emotional intelligence on the relationship of stress and GPA in military veteran nursing students.