Are doctors forced to ‘rat snack’ because of crazy hours? What are the risks?

By Julia Ries | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published March 14, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Odd hours disrupt eating habits, leading to frequent 'rat snacking' among those working non-traditional schedules.

  • 'Rat snacking' poses risks like overeating, nutrient deficiencies, and increased obesity and disease risks, highlighting the importance of mindful eating.

It’s no secret that shift work can impact when and how you eat. Research shows, for example, that people who work odd hours are more likely to eat irregular and more frequent meals—and to snack at night. 

This might explain why ‘rat snacking,’ in which people consume whatever type of food they can scavenge, has gained traction on social media platforms like TikTok, especially among people who work outside traditional hours. In many videos, people can be seen munching on whatever they can get their hands on, from almonds smashed between leftover cheddar cheese slices to chips crumbled into a half-eaten container of hummus.[] 

While ‘rat snacking’ might seem harmless, dietitians say that, in some cases, it can lead to overconsumption and nutritional deficiencies. Michelle Routhenstein, MS, RD, CDECS, CDN, a registered dietitian-nutritionist who specializes in cardiometabolic health at EntirelyNourished, says that snacks often lack the variety and nutritional density found in well-balanced meals. “If ‘rat snacking’ replaces balanced meals, individuals may miss out on essential nutrients, leading to deficiencies,” Routhenstein tells MDLinx

While convenience is important for shift workers when choosing what to eat, she notes that health should remain the top priority. Here’s what to know about ‘rat snacking,’ including when and how it can be done safely.

What are the potential health risks of ‘rat snacking’? 

Snacking is not inherently unhealthy; when done thoughtfully, it can provide an energy boost and help people meet daily intake recommendations for various minerals, fibers, and vitamins.[][]

For those who work long, irregular hours, however, it can be tempting to reach for snacks—or whatever’s nearby—when hunger strikes instead of carefully planning out meals and snacks ahead of time. This would “not be a beneficial way of eating for people [who] work long hours, as they need foods that will sustain them for longer periods of time,” says Michelle Saari, MSc, RD, a registered dietitian-nutritionist with EHProject.

People who perpetually snack risk consuming more calories than they need. They may end up choosing high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks, including processed food and sweet treats, which can negatively impact their overall health. “Constant grazing on snacks throughout the day can lead to excessive calorie consumption, contributing to weight gain and potential health issues such as obesity and metabolic syndrome,” says Routhenstein.[] 

Research suggests that shift workers face a 23% increased risk of developing obesity or becoming overweight compared to people who work during the daytime. Another report found that nurses tend to eat more saturated fat during evening and night shifts, which may contribute to chronic diseases such as heart disease or type 2 diabetes. Past research has consistently identified an association between shift work and increased incidence of cardiometabolic disease.[][][] 

The other risk of excessive snacking is that potato chips and cookies, which tend to have poor nutrient profiles, may begin to replace meals. “If you don’t focus on getting all the foods and nutrients that you need for longevity, just giving into cravings all day, you may not realize you’re missing some essential nutrients,” says Saari.[]

Here’s how to make sure your snacking stays healthy

This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s time to cut out all snacking. Evidence suggests that the quality of snacks is more impactful than the quantity or frequency of snacking. 

Planning or measuring out your snacks ahead of time can help prevent overconsumption, Routhenstein adds. Look for snacks that contain fiber, healthy fats, or protein, as they can make you feel satiated and energized. Fresh fruits, like apples, oranges, bananas, and grapes; chopped vegetables, including carrots, celery, and cucumbers; whole-grain crackers and bread; and proteins, such as nuts and seeds, are nutritious snack options, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When snacks are healthy and nutritious, they can improve shift workers’ performance, especially during long working hours, research shows.[][]

The goal, according to Routhenstein, is to use snacking to complement, rather than replace, your meals. She recommends aiming for three balanced meals a day and using snacks as a tool to help curb hunger when your energy levels dip. “After that, if ‘rat snackers’ want to indulge and eat like rats, they can because they’ve met their nutrition goals already,” Saari says.[]

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