Meal Tips for Heart Health and Weight Management of Firefighters
NSCA TSAC Program
|by Katie Miller, RD, LDN
According to recent studies, 73% of career firefighters are classified as overweight or obese. Obese firefighters, when compared to firefighters of normal weight are more likely to suffer from hypertension, abnormal blood lipid panels, continuous weight gain, lower cardiorespiratory fitness, reduced muscular strength, and more frequent fatal cardiac events (1). Heart disease alone, accounts for 45% of deaths on duty (2).
There are several significant factors that can contribute to excessive weight gain: shift work and irregular work hours, development of unhealthy eating patterns, sleep deprivation, and research that shows most firefighters get less than the recommended 150 min of moderate to high-intensity exercise per week. If one looks a bit closer, some of these factors are related (i.e., as bodyweight increases, an inverse relationship to cardiorespiratory fitness is noted, which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease) (1).
From a nutrition standpoint, here are a few tips for firefighters to incorporate into their daily routines to create healthy nutrition habits with heart health and weight management in mind:
Foster an environment within the firehouse of good health through meal choices, rather than just emphasizing quick and cheap eats for selected meal times. This can be as simple as setting a goal to create meals with less than 30% of calories coming from fat and less than 7% of those fat calories coming from unhealthy fat sources, like saturated fat.
Choose heart-healthy fat sources for cooking, like avocado, canola oil, olive oil, peanut oil, coconut, ground flax seed, salmon, and walnuts. These oils and food items contain mono- and polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3 fats which are found to be beneficial sources of fat within our diets. This is compared to saturated and trans fats found in baked or fried foods, some processed foods, hydrogenated oils, and butter.
Exchange high-fat ingredients of daily food items for lower fat versions. For example, switch from whole milk to skim milk, from butter to margarine, eat more egg whites rather than whole eggs, replace oil in baked foods with natural applesauce. It is also suggested to select leaner meats. Choose skinless, boneless white meats of poultry; choose leaner red meat cuts like sirloin, 94 – 97% lean ground beef, round roast, flank steak; incorporate more game meats into the meal rotation—meats like venison and bison are lower fat options than beef; if you choose pork, stick with the boneless pork loin and remove the extra fat prior to cooking.
Eat smaller, balanced meals every 2 – 3 hr for sustained energy (just in case you get called away unexpectedly for an alarm, your most recent meal may be closer than when you have 4 – 6 hr between meals). With this in mind, keep healthy snacks stocked on the truck for something to snack on to or away from the fire to keep hunger under control.
Incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables into your day. The United Stated Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) MyPlate recommends consuming a minimum of 2 c of fruit and 2.5 c of vegetables per day. Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in calories, and high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Vary the colors and varieties of these foods within the diet to optimize your benefits from their consumption.
Choose whole grains. The USDA’s MyPlate recommends consuming 6 oz of grains per day, with 3 oz coming from a whole grain source, like oatmeal, whole wheat breads/wraps, quinoa, or whole grain cold cereals.
Stop smoking. Firefighters inhale enough smoke during fire suppression operations, so why add more of these chemicals to your body? Plus, smoking has been shown to increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Food items like cookies, pies, cakes, candy, and ice cream taste really great, but remember that these added sugar items are “treats” and should not be consumed on a regular basis. They provide minimal benefits for the amount of calories they supply, so try to limit yourself to no more than 10% of daily calories from added sugars.
Evaluate what you are drinking. Some people would be surprised how many additional calories can be added to a daily calorie intake just through their beverage choices.
Get at least 150 min of moderate or high-intensity exercise per week, in addition to work duties.