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Study shows where firefighters get calories, it’s not pretty

Alcohol is the second highest source of calories, with salty snacks at number three; both can contribute to poor heart health


By R. Sue Day, et al.

Results from the first detailed evaluation of what firefighters across America eat and drink, the “Fuel 2 Fight” study, is an eye-opener.

We conducted detailed dietary recalls with 689 career firefighters from 20 departments, which included everything they ate and drank at home and at the firehouse — off- and on-duty — two times over a six-month period, providing a total of 1,879 days of food intake. The results revealed their diets consist of about 435 uniquely different foods and beverages.

The list starts off well with chicken and turkey as the number-one source of calories in firefighters’ diet.

However, the number two item, alcohol, a recreational drink with no nutritional value and which was only consumed on the non-duty day, provided almost the same percentage of calories in the diet as chicken and turkey.

Beer was the main source of the alcohol calories, followed by wine and liquor. In fact, some firefighters consumed as many calories in a day from alcohol as they did from all the food they ate combined.

This finding may explain some of the current overweight, obesity problems and weight gain trends in the fire service [1-2]. This also reinforces the high rates of problem drinking patterns documented in previous studies [3-4], both of which could be linked to coping with the large volume of stressful events firefighters regularly encounter [5].

Several of the other major sources of calories in firefighters’ diets will make most health professionals cringe — and maybe you too.

Salty snacks and chips are in third place. These snacks have a lot of unnecessary sodium, possibly increasing risk of hypertension, and otherwise have minimal nutrient value.

White, don’t bite

Fourth place is noodles and rice. Most noodles are made from white flour, which appears in multitudes of processed foods.

This easily consumed, tasty white powder is the result of a complex process of pulverizing the wheat grain into a powder and then artificially adding back the nutrients lost in the process.

All this happens to the grain before it even begins the process of being made into to the actual noodle, which has even more additions and preservatives. When foods with white flour are digested, they act like sugar in the body triggering inflammation, weight gain and blood sugar changes.

French fries, hash browns and white potatoes come in at fifth place. White potatoes are eaten throughout the day at breakfast, lunch, dinner and as a snack, many coming from fast-food eateries.

Potatoes have some vitamin C, but are mainly sources of simple carbohydrates digested quickly into sugars after consumption. Sugar calories are not something most of us need more of. The fried potatoes from fast food eateries frequently are prepared using less desirable fats and are high in calories, adding to the chances of potential weight gain.

Not surprisingly, sweet pastries and sugar-sweetened beverages also are among the top calorie providers. Although science and the current media provide messages about the health implications of added sugars in the diet, our data show sweets and sodas are a huge part of firefighters’ diets.

Empty calories

These foods have minimal nutritional content and negatively impact hormones which control hunger and body fat. The foods and beverages on this list providing calories and little nutrient value are likely part of the reason firefighters are struggling with excess weight and related health problems.

These 20 beverages and foods provide almost 50 percent of all the calories in firefighters’ diets and represent two-thirds of all the individual foods consumed.

Although some of these foods do not individually contribute a high percentage of calories, collectively they make a large impact on health. Many of the foods on this list are heavily processed and have a high-refined grain content (noodles, rice, white bread/rolls, pizza, cereal/oatmeal, and sweet pastries) and make up one-quarter of all calories consumed.

Refined grains are carbohydrates when digested are available to the body as more sugars. Processed foods and refined grains have low or no vitamins and minerals and don’t adequately fuel a firefighters’ strenuous, demanding lifestyle.

If this type of empty calorie eating is sustained over a career, it can lead to weight gain and poor health, making firefighting even more challenging. As well, overweight and obesity are associated with cardiovascular disease, which is the major cause of fire service line-of-duty deaths.

So if you are wondering why your belt is getting tighter and you don’t feel energized to get up and do your job with your crew — maybe it’s time to think about how you eat and start to make some changes.

Choose food and beverages with actual nutrients, not just extra calories. You can make some simple changes to help fuel your body to do the hard work of being a first responder. Reducing intake of high-calorie foods will help prevent additional weight gain.

You can’t outrun a bad diet, no matter how hard you exercise. Being healthy starts with a good diet and is complimented by exercise and adequate sleep.

There are programs supported by FEMA, IAFF, IAFC and NVFC to help you make diet and lifestyle changes — find one and start turning your life around today.

About the authors
R. Sue Day, Ph.D., is professor of epidemiology at the UT Health School of Public Health, Houston. She is a nutritional epidemiologist with over 29 years of experience in nutrition, epidemiology and health promotion working with multi-disciplinary research teams. Dr. Day is a member of the Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health and the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living.

Walker S.C, Poston, Ph.D., is director of the Institute for Biobehavioral Health Research at the National Development and Research Institutes, Inc. and a senior principal investigator in the Center for Fire, Rescue, and EMS Health Research. Dr. Poston is an occupational epidemiologist whose research focuses on occupational epidemiology and health, firefighter and military health issues, and the etiology, assessment, and management of obesity and cardiovascular disease. He is a Fellow of the American College of Epidemiology, a Fellow of The Obesity Society, and a decorated veteran of the U.S. Air Force.

Christopher K. Haddock, Ph.D., is deputy director of the Institute for Biobehavioral Health Research at the National Development and Research Institutes, Inc. and a senior principal investigator in the Center for Fire, Rescue, and EMS Health Research. Dr. Haddock’s research focus in on health issues among the military, fire service, and law enforcement. He is a National Strength and Conditioning Association certified personal trainer, a Fellow of The Obesity Society, an accredited professional statistician, and full member of the American Statistical Association. Dr. Haddock also is a decorated veteran of the U.S. Air Force.

Sara A. Jahnke, Ph.D. is a principal investigator with the Institute for Biobehavioral Health Research at the National Development and Research Institutes, Inc. and the director of the Center for Fire, Rescue, and EMS Health Research. Dr. Jahnke is an active member of the Safety, Health and Survival section of International Association of Fire Chiefs and is called on regularly to be a consultant on health-related topics for that committee and was invited to author a white paper for the Third Life Safety Summit of the Everyone Goes Home program from the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

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2. Poston, W.S.C., Jitnarin, N., Hadock, C.K., Jahnke, S.A., & Tuley, B.C. (2012). The impact of surveillance on weight change and predictors of change in a population-based firefighter cohort. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 54, 961-968. PMID: 22772954.

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