Firefighter nutrition: You can't out run dessert

Exercise alone won't shave the extra pounds that increase firefighters' safety and health risks

Mounting scientific evidence suggests that firefighters have high rates of being overweight and obese, which is likely related to several risk factors from being on the job. It also has been found that obesity leads to higher risk for injury, cardiovascular disease and disability among firefighters.

Physical activity often is recommended as the first line of defense for combating obesity, and the fire service is increasingly paying attention to fitness as a way to curb the epidemic.

What receives less attention among firefighters is nutrition — which actually has a bigger impact on overall body composition.

Fitness as a weight-loss strategy alone has been found to be ineffective. Scientists believe this is likely because people overestimate the energy they are expending with exercise and eat more, offsetting the benefit of physical activity.

Data suggests that the energy balance equation is not as easy as calories in/calories out. Recent research is finding that the macronutrient balance (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and even the timing and order of consuming these macronutrients matter.

But, as a general example, a pint of Ben and Jerry's Chubby Hubby ice cream has around 1,300 calories. An average size male would need to run at a 5 mph pace for more than two hours to expend that many calories. That same person walking at a walking-the-dog pace would need to walk more than five hours to burn through those calories.

Collateral benefits
This is not to say that fitness isn't important. We know that those who are more fit and exercise regularly are less likely to be injured on the fireground and have higher readiness.

Physical activity also has other health benefits including reducing risk for several types of cancers that firefighters are at higher risk for than the general population.

A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association – Internal Medicine by Dr. Steven Moore and colleagues found that cancer risk was reduced by 20 percent or more among those who were most active compared with those in the least-active groups, even when controlling for body mass index. It is believed that the reduction in risk is related to the metabolic pathways that are affected by exercise.  

For firefighters who want to lose some of their extra weight, focusing on nutrition is key. So where to begin?

In the fireground rehab sector, officers in charge need to make smart choices about what's being served to eat and drink. If rehab service are provided by a third party, such as Red Cross, work with them to stock their rehab units with food and drink that will improve firefighter health.

And of course, smart choices need to be made when stocking the fridge and pantry at home and the firehouse.

Five food tips
First, pay attention to what you are consuming. The old adage "knowing is half the battle" is true when it comes to nutrition. It is easy to over or under estimate what you are taking in if you are not paying close attention.

Some people find it helpful to track their intake and there are several aps and programs that make this tracking easy. Often people don't realize how many extra calories they are consuming through snacks or what they are drinking.

Second, pay attention to how much you are consuming. Portion sizes are tricky. Checking labels is a good start to understand where your calories are coming from, but pay special attention to the prescribed portion sizes on the labels.

The pint of ice cream mentioned earlier is four servings according to the label. Often, the calories listed on a bottle of soda are actually for only half the bottle.

Recognizing that portion sizes on labels are sometimes unrealistic, the FDA recently released new guidelines for food nutrition labels that requires portion sizes to be closer to what people actually consume.

Third, watch for empty calories. It is important to focus on nutrient-dense foods — vegetables and fruits in particular — so the calories you are consuming also have a good deal of vitamins and minerals.

Empty calories, on the other hand, have no added value. For instance, in our observational study of alcohol consumption, about a quarter of firefighters were consuming the caloric equivalent of three Snickers bars on the days they drank alcohol — a significant addition of calories on top of meals and snacks in a given day.

Fourth, cut out sugar. It is obvious that cutting out or cutting back on desserts and high-sugar/high-calorie foods is key to weight loss. It also is important to pay attention to the sugar being taken in through drinks. Soda and energy drinks in particular often have high sugar content.

Fifth, choose less processed foods. While debate exists in the world of nutrition about the best diet, most agree that focusing on whole, natural foods is preferred. A common suggestion is shopping the perimeter of the store and staying away from the middle aisles with highly processed foods with additives.

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution for weight loss. While physical activity is important for improving fitness and overall health, improving nutrition is the step necessary for sustained weight loss and improved overall health.

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