New Study Shows Time-Restricting Eating Improves Health For Shift Workers


A new study shows that shift workers, including firefighters, who often face long hours and increased health risks, can benefit from time-restricted eating (TRE).

The research, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, highlights the potential advantages of following a time-restricted eating plan, where individuals limit their eating window to 10 hours per day.

Working extended shifts, sometimes up to 24 hours at a stretch, has been associated with various health issues, including a higher incidence of heart attacks and diabetes. However, firefighters who adhered to a time-restricted eating plan experienced a reduction in these risks.

The findings have broader implications beyond firefighting. Military personnel, nurses, transportation drivers, and new parents whose schedules are disrupted by caring for a baby could also benefit from adopting a time-restricted eating approach.

Prior to this study, little research had been conducted to identify lifestyle interventions that could effectively mitigate the health risks associated with shift work. However, this American study demonstrated that time-restricted eating could be safely implemented among shift workers.

In addition, the study group found that time-restricted eating provided positive health benefits to participants who exhibited signs of cardiometabolic disease. This is a cluster of common yet preventable conditions, like heart attack, stroke, diabetes, insulin resistance, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Referred to as the Healthy Heroes Study, this intervention particularly focused on firefighters in San Diego, California.

Co-corresponding author Professor Satchidananda Panda, of the Salk Institute, said, “Shift work is much more common than many people think.”

“Not only does shift work contribute to an increased burden of disease in our society, but it makes it hard for people with existing conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease to manage them,” Panda added.

Co-corresponding author Professor Pam Taub, a cardiologist at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, said, “Overall, firefighters are a pretty healthy group of people, but we found that for those who had underlying cardiometabolic risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and hyperglycemia, there was some benefit to TRE, especially in terms of improvement in glucose levels and blood pressure.”

Professors Panda and Taub, who have collaborated on the specific research of time-restricted eating for many years, published a study in Cell Metabolism’s January 2020 journal. They explained that restricting eating to a 10-hour window per day reduced body weight, improved blood pressure, and positively impacted cholesterol levels in individuals with metabolic syndrome.

For the current study, the research team recruited 137 San Diego firefighters, who work 24-hour shifts. Of these participants, 70 followed a time-restricted eating plan, consuming all their meals within a 10-hour window, while the remaining 67 served as the control group.

All participants were encouraged to follow a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. The study spanned 12 weeks and employed innovative strategies to overcome the logistical challenges of studying shift workers.

Researchers visited fire stations to apply wearable devices that collected data on participants’ activity, sleep, and blood glucose levels.

The team developed a customized app that allowed firefighters to log their food and sleep, answer study surveys, and receive guidance on following the recommended lifestyle. The researchers observed that the time-restricted eating pattern was both safe and feasible, with participants reporting no issues related to concentration, reaction times, or other concerns. Additionally, participants experienced an improvement in their overall quality of life.

Taub shared, “Even those who were healthy with no underlying cardiometabolic risk factors had improvements in quality of life and in VLDL, which is a form of bad cholesterol.”

The research team now intends to conduct similar studies with healthcare workers, expanding. the potential application of time-restricted eating to other professionals with demanding schedules.

Panda added, “Humans have been living with circadian rhythms for at least 200,000 years, and these rhythms clearly have a profound effect on us. Shift workers, whether they are astronauts or custodians, are vital to our society. It’s time to think about how we might help them improve their health.”

“Doctors and researchers are always thinking about the magic pill that can cure or reduce disease. Our study showed that shift workers with high blood pressure, blood sugar, or cholesterol can benefit from a simple lifestyle intervention called time-restricted eating.”