Step Away from the Vending Machine!

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From day-old pizza to burnt, cold coffee, EPs are known for eating anything left in the call room. But just a few healthy habits can go a long way on the long night shifts.

You hear a loud rumble as you walk out of the exam room. Did anyone else hear that?  No, but you need to grab something to eat. On the way to the cafeteria you pass by the doctor’s lounge and settle for the dizzying array of snacks on the table. The emergency department is just too busy.

This is the case for many emergency physicians and few of us are strangers to putting our hands in the cookie jar. It happens because potlucks, vending machines, and caffeinated drinks are distributed around the ED every single day. “One of the worst temptations is just the fact that people are always bringing in things,” said Dr. Jyoti Mahapatra, a clinical instructor in the emergency department at Nebraska Medicine in Omaha, Nebraska. And she’s right. In an EPM email survey of 40 physicians, 20 percent say potlucks are frequently brought in. Meanwhile, one respondent wrote that they bring in frozen treats like ice cream bars and cream puffs for the nurses.


“It is a disaster. What is there and what you bring in, is a small fraction of the problem and it seems that it is always something made out of sour cream or cream cheese, always,” said Mahapatra.

Dips and chips aside, the cause for a junk food binge could be rooted in the nature of shift work. When the Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine looked at the dietary habits of shift workers, they found “workers who work irregular hours develop a loss of appetite and become reluctant to prepare meals due to difficulties in adjusting to social life.” This could be the reason why some EPs fast on shift or tend to eat unhealthily.

However, there needs to be some kind of balance. “I think the key is planning. ER life is stressful and early in the shift, it’s easier to make healthy choices,” says Dr. E. Paul DeKoning, an assistant professor of emergency medicine and assistant program director at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire.


He explained that when charts pile up and the longer he goes without eating is when he starts to crave less than healthy options. In order to fight the temptation, he fuels his body often with his healthy version of snacks.

And according to the survey, some of you are just like Paul. Half of the survey respondents say they gravitate towards healthy options like fruits, nuts, and cheese when going through their rounds.

“I generally eat healthy the majority of the time.  I’m always proud when people see or smell what I’ve made and ask for the recipe,” said Dr. Jaime Hope, an attending physician at Beaumont Health System, Royal Oak Campus and a clinical medicine professor at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine. But, being prepared is just one of the many strategies to keep your healthy eating habits in check.

According to Dr. Salim Rezaie, founder and editor of Rebel EM, in addition to a good diet, exercise is also important.


“If your institution has a workstation on wheels that you can roll around with you, this will keep you more active on your shift and there will be less sitting which will always help burn more calories and keep your brain sharp,” says Rezaie.

It’s definitely easy to fall into the less-than-healthy eating trap, especially when you’re stressed, but it is also good to remember how loading up on bad food makes you feel. “There have been stressful shifts and patient experiences that have had me reaching for comfort foods,” says Dr. Hope, “…[but]I feel sluggish after eating so much junk, it makes it harder to get the energy to finish the shift.”

So, here are three simple strategies you can use the next time you get fed up with junk food. Trust us, you’re going to want to memorize these tips before the holidays arrive.

  1. Buddy Up: Having a colleague who shares your food goals can hold you accountable. The two of you can cheer each other on when one of you makes a healthier choice.
  2. Plan Ahead: Meal prep is key. You can purchase compartment containers to make preparation easier and try making meals like lasagna or stew that’s easy to freeze and defrost.
  3. Reward Yourself: You’re going to eat that donut, just don’t do it often. Try setting a goal. For example if you have a couple of night shifts at the hospital and bring your food the first two days, let your last day be your cheat day. You earned it!


Taja Whitted has worked as an editor for Emergency Physicians Monthly and currently works at Harper Collins.

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