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Nutrition for firefighters: 3 simple truths

The next time you walk past a fast-food restaurant, look through the window and observe the consequences of adverse consumption

Editor’s Note: The National Volunteer Fire Council’s National Firefighter Health Week runs August 16-20. It’s an annual week-long initiative held each August to educate the fire and emergency services community and the public about a variety of health and wellness issues that affect first responders. Friday’s topic of focus is nutrition and physical fitness. In addition to our article below, be sure to check out nutrition tips from the NVFC here as well as its special Health Week page.

By Kevin Malley and David Spierer
Get Firefighter Fit

The effect of sound nutrition on physical performance, appearance and health are undeniable. Simply stated, if you want to look, feel and move like a Ferrari, you’d better consume a diet rich in high-octane foods.

And if you choose to eat like a hog, don’t expect to move like a gazelle. Nutrition is a critical piece of the training puzzle. What you eat is clearly going to either boost or hinder your physical development and performance.

Give this a thought — the next time you walk past a fast-food restaurant, look through the window and observe the consequences of adverse consumption. Is that where you want to be? Probably not, especially if you’re reading this book.

You want to look great, feel great and perform at the highest level. You want to be “firefighter fit,” and to achieve this goal you need to learn how to become a mindful consumer — eating right, often and light.

You need to consume a performance-oriented diet rich in “foods that fuel you up and clean you out rather than those that slow you down and clog you up. And as you do, you’ll undoubtedly see how the human body, when properly nourished, can do amazing things.

This chapter provides you with the information you need to develop an important understanding of healthful and performance-oriented nutrition. Our approach to performance nutrition is simple,
proven, realistic and effective.

You’ll find it easy to understand and simple to apply. In learning the basic facts and principles we put forth in the following pages, you’ll be able to create your own personalized high-performance diet — a diet that fits your particular tastes and promotes optimal training
development and performance.

Simple Truth #1: Your mother was right
It’s always nice to begin a new section on a positive note. That said, the good news here is that the diverse, well-balanced and complex carbohydrate based diet that your mother provided and insisted that you eat was right on the mark.

She knew of your tremendous potential early on and therefore fueled you to achieve great success from the start. Her emphasis on whole foods; cereals, fruits and vegetables was sheer genius.

She was your first great coach, but now it’s time for you to take over the helm and surge ahead. In line with your mother’s intuitive prescription, we recommend that you consume a diet composed of approximately 55 to 60 percent carbohydrate (primarily complex starches, not simple sugars), about 15 percent protein, and less than 30 percent fat.

Moreover, you should absolutely minimize your saturated fat intake (less than 10 percent) and avoid trans fatty acids at all costs. Fluid intake should include the bountiful consumption of caffeine- and alcohol-free beverages.

If your diet is well balanced (as described) and truly diverse in terms of selected food items, then supplementation with any form of chemical (vitamin, mineral, predigested amino acids, magical herbs) is unwarranted.

Having said that, if you wish to augment your nutritional intake with a basic multi-vitamin/multi-mineral for the sake of personal assurance or insurance, go right ahead, “no harm, no foul.”

If you maintain this balance (55 to 60 percent carbohydrate/roughly 15 percent protein/less than 30 percent fat) and diversify your food item selection, you’ll obtain adequate amounts of all the nutrients (including protein) necessary to train and develop optimally. We caution you not to fall prey to the slick and seductive marketing efforts of the billion-dollar supplement industry.

Consuming the questionable contents from a tremendous jar of “Nitro-muscle Super Blaster” (or whatever) most certainly will not result in the miraculous development of monstersized muscles like those of air-brushed Nitro-man, nor will it land you a date with his counterpart Nitrowoman.

Eating smart and training intelligently are the ways to get you to where you want to go — not some magic potion, powder or pill.

Simple Truth #2: Carbohydrate is the fuel for the fire floor
Carbohydrate is the primary source of fuel for firefighting and the performance of other high-intensity physical activities. It’s also the preferred source of fuel for muscles performing moderate to highintensity aerobic work, red blood cells delivering oxygen to working muscles, and brain cells that enable you to think.

Unlike protein and fat, this is the fuel that facilitates high-level mental and physical performance in critical and demanding situations. Thus, to perform on the level of a high-intensity firefighter or high-performance athlete, you need to consume a carbohydrate-based high-performance diet.

McArdle, Pritiken, Bailey and a league of other similarly knowledgeable nutritionists all recommend that carbohydrate make up the majority of your daily caloric intake. We agree, and for one good reason: It works!

However, recognizing that percentages are often difficult to calculate though the course of a day, we suggest that you initially employ the following simple fix: Substitute high quality complex carbohydrate foods (fruits, vegetables, cereals, juices and whole-grain products) for some of the lower-quality fatty foods that you might otherwise be inclined to devour.

In so doing, not only will you be loading up your body with the high-performance fuel it requires and desires, but you’ll also be supplying it with the essential vitamins, minerals, fiber and water it needs to promote good health and powerhouse performance.

The more you move in the direction of whole-food consumption, the sooner you’ll realize the incredible truth that you can actually eat more and weigh less.

Simple Truth #3: Eat foods that fuel you up and clean you out
This simple truth also emphasizes carbohydrate intake since the consumption of complex-carbohydrate foods support high-end physical performance, and assists in the prevention of both heart disease and cancer.

A diet rich in (complex) carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, cereals, grains, juices, rice and pasta provides you with the fuel you need to perform at your highest level. Fat, on the other hand, will only contribute significantly as a source of fuel during the performance of low- to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, and protein has to be scavenged from body tissue and then converted to carbohydrate in the liver before it’s used as a viable energy source.

Consequently, diets that are high in protein and fat rather than carbohydrate are likely to fill you up with unusable fuels and simultaneously starve you of the “rocket” fuel you need to perform—a diet high in protein and fat will cause you to fatigue more rapidly as unfilled muscle
and liver stores of carbohydrate quickly deplete.

This will have an undeniably negative effect on both your training and athletic or firefighting performance. WARNING: High-protein diets are particularly dangerous to high-performance firefighter/athletes.

They fail to provide adequate carbohydrate fuel and promote the loss of essential body water, electrolyte minerals and the water-soluble vitamins used for producing energy. Dehydration can accelerate the rate of fatigue and diminish the body’s ability for cooling during high-intensity physical work or exercise, especially in hot and humid athletic, training and firefighting environments.

Thus, consuming a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet that results in carbohydrate depletion and dehydration is unproductive, unhealthy and potentially lethal for high-intensity firefighter/athletes.

Kevin Malley is the chairperson of the fire science department at New Jersey City University. As a member of the FDNY for more than 22 years, he worked in engine, ladder and special operations units as a firefighter and fire officer. In 1996, he was appointed as the FDNY director of human performance, where he was responsible for the physical conditioning programs for the department’s firefighter, EMS and civilian personnel. David Spierer is an assistant professor and director of the human performance laboratory in the division of sports sciences at Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. Their new book, “Get Firefighter Fit,” aims to develop the fitness level and physique of firefighters. Profits from the book will go to a scholarship in honor of two of Malley’s many colleagues who died in 9/11. To order it, visit