Fuel for Health: Investments Every Firefighter Can Make

By Kelli LaPage, MS, ATC, TWCC

The most valuable asset any firefighter has is their body. More valuable than any fire truck, hose or tool, the firefighter’s body is the most important asset when it comes to their job – saving lives.

It is the firefighter who makes the life or death decisions that save lives and property. It is the implementation of their decisions through their physical actions that determine who and what survives. They are placed in harm’s way every day, under extreme duress, and asked to perform strenuous feats of physical agility and power, all while operating with lightning reflexes and on-point mental capacity.

Yet, so many firefighters do not prioritize the fuel they put in their own bodies. Notice I did not say they don’t care … I said they don’t prioritize.

These amazing men and women, who put their lives on the line for others every day, deserve to prioritize themselves. They must prioritize themselves, their health and their well-being in order to be able to continue to care for others. There are so many ways that you as a firefighter can invest in your own health – physical training, PPE, proper sleep. But, perhaps the most important is in how you fuel your body.

With all of the advice, weight loss plans and “health foods” bursting off the shelves, it is no wonder if you are confused, overwhelmed or even think you are making healthy choices when, in fact, you are sabotaging your own fuel source.

You wouldn’t put Kool-Aid in your gas tank and expect it to run. You wouldn’t attach a fire hose to a vat of cooking oil and expect it to put out a fire. You wouldn’t feed your firehouse dog mac and cheese every meal and expect him to be healthy.

So why are you putting the wrong fuel in your body?

Just like your fire truck, your body was designed to run on a certain type of fuel for optimal performance. You cannot fill up the fire truck’s gas tank with just any fuel. It has to be the right fuel for that engine. And different engines may require different fuel and different additives.

The point is, you do not just “fill” the gas tank with any old thing you have around. You fill it with what it needs.

The same should be true for your “engine.” Yes, you can “fill” it with lots of different things – but unless you fill it with the right fuel in the right balance, it will not run optimally. Too many of us use food to “fill us up” (physically or mentally or emotionally) instead of to “fuel” us.

Food should be seen as fuel that contributes to optimal health without causing any negative physical, hormonal or emotional response. To determine this, we must listen to our body’s cues and responses. If you feel lethargic or have increased joint pain after eating grain products, then grain is not an appropriate fuel for you. If your blood sugar spikes outside of healthy levels after you eat a piece of double fudge molten lava cake – or a bowl of pasta or even a fruit smoothie – those foods are not proper fuel for your body. It doesn’t mean you can never eat those foods, but do so sparingly and only as a conscious choice and not a mindless act.

Following is some “food for thought” on how to identify the right fuel for you, and begin to implement a plan to maximize your “fuel efficiency” every day.

Whole Foods/Clean Eating

There are a lot of fancy “diets” circulating. One day everyone swears by paleo. The next day, everyone swears by Atkins or the Mediterranean diet or the grapefruit diet. The problem is: Diets are not designed for you. They are designed for a theory – and to make money.

So, while there may be components of certain “diets” that are scientifically sound and may even meet some of your specific fuel needs, no “diet plan” is the perfect fit for you. So, stop trying to fit yourself into someone else’s plan (see N=1) and start your own scientific experiment for yourself.

What we do know – what is indisputable – is that our body was designed to be capable of digesting certain food sources, in certain ways. Our bodies were not designed to take on excessive amounts of additives, chemicals, added sugars or even genetically modified foods or those processed beyond recognition of their natural state. Our body was designed to eat real food: whole food.

The popular media term these days is “clean eating.” Whole food/clean eating in its simplest form refers to eating food that is grown, sown or raised and still recognizable in its natural form on the table. Clean eating eliminates (or at least greatly minimizes) processed foods, foods with added sugars, foods with any chemical additives or even “natural” additives or ingredients that are not digestible by our bodies. Clean eating also encourages no GMO (genetically modified) food sourcing.

Anyone with a goal to improve their overall health, reduce inflammation or chronic pain, or manage chronic disease will benefit from adopting clean eating choices. Additional guidelines may be recommended for people experiencing certain health issues, especially those rooted in systemic inflammation. But, at the root of clean eating is a simple guideline: Eat real food.

Check your labels. If you do not recognize an ingredient, it is probably not a whole food. If there are multiple forms of sugar in the ingredient list, it is not a whole food. If it has more than 10 ingredients (unless it is a soup or salad), it probably is not a whole food. The general rule of thumb is that whole foods are usually found on the perimeter of your grocery store. Once you start heading into the “aisles,” you enter processed food land – even in the so-called “health food aisles.” Stick to whole foods whenever possible. If you must buy from a bag a box or a can, make sure that you recognize all of the ingredients in the ingredient list as whole foods. Also make sure that you can actually recognize them in the food itself.

N=1: One Size Does Not Fit All

Whenever I work with individuals, I am always quick to point out why “diet plans” don’t work (at least not sustainably). That is because a diet is based on a theory, not a person.

It may or may not take actual science into account, but we are all different. We all have different variables that affect our fuel needs and our food tolerances. We all have different likes and dislikes. We all have different goals and restrictions. And most importantly, we all have a different metabolism.

Can our metabolisms become more efficient? Yes. But, only when we fuel it with the food source and balance that is right for our body, not someone else’s.

Fuel is not one size fits all. What you eat to maximize your health, and your health goals, is dependent on many factors. So, whenever you start any plan to change your way of eating, first do your research (scientific that is) and then apply what makes sense to your circumstances and your goals: N=1.

After that, it only matters what you learn from your own self-experiment. It does not matter how your co-worker or your brother or your chief responds to eating a certain food. It only matters how you respond. So, empower yourself with knowledge of the science, pay attention to your body’s cues and then trust your body to tell you what is right for you.

Eat What You Love – Love What You Eat

Let me be clear: That doesn’t mean eat everything you love … I love fudge-covered Oreo cookies at the holidays. And I may even choose to have one here and there throughout the holiday season.

But, that does not mean that I eat three or four a day, every day, while they are stocked on the store shelves from October to December.

Eat what you love within the food choices that you know are compliant with the way you choose to eat. If you are eating to stabilize your blood sugar, processed foods and those with added sugar are not in your daily food plan. So, just because you love chocolate cake doesn’t mean you eat it at every meal.

“Love what you eat” means that within the food options that provide maximum health benefits for your body and circumstances, you pick the foods you love. For example, there are hundreds of varieties of vegetables that provide enormous health benefits for our bodies. So, why would you force yourself to eat broccoli if you hate it?

Choose vegetables that you love. Try new ones every now and then, but if you don’t love them, don’t have them again. Identify your power foods – those foods you love that are also nutrient dense and contribute to you feeling your best. Invest your fuel “budget” (caloric- and financial-wise) in the foods you love. So, if you love filet mignon and shrimp, but hate turkey, don’t force yourself to eat turkey. If you fuel yourself with the foods you love, you will feel more satisfied and be less likely to “off-road” by mindlessly snacking or choosing foods that do not promote healthy responses.

Balance Your Fuel

Balancing your fuel does not require calorie counting or weighing your food for each meal. It doesn’t even require stuffing food types into specially sized color-coded containers (yes, that is the latest fad). No one, and certainly no formula, knows what your body needs … except you.

But, you may be a little confused getting some mixed messages if your body has been misfueled for a while. So here is the most basic guideline that will allow your body to relearn how to tell you what it needs: Eat three meals a day that provide the fuel and energy you need for around four hours (give or take) without feeling hungry until it is time for your next meal.

Each meal should be equal balance (by “sight,” not weighing or calorie counting) of protein and non-starchy vegetables and a portion of healthy fats. If you choose to add additional food options, they are as sides and not a main course. So, if you choose to have grains (rice, pasta, etc.) you have a portion on the side: a piece of fruit on the side, a piece of bread or a small portion of dessert on the side. But, if you stick to making that main portion of your meal (protein and vegetable and healthy fat) in an amount that keeps you fueled and satisfied, you will self-manage the amounts of those other foods types that may not be the optimal fuel source for your body.

Water Rules!

As firefighters you know this better than most: Water is amazing. It can put out the fire, cool you down and, most importantly, hydrate you. No matter what your occupation or way of life, everyone needs water to optimize health and metabolic efficiency. The average person requires 50 percent of their weight (in pounds) in ounces of water for ideal metabolic functioning and health. That means if you are 200 pounds, you need around 100 ounces of water a day.

You can get some of that water from whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables, but we typically over-estimate what we get from these sources. So, aim as close as you can to the recommendation for your body size and space it out throughout the day. There are also situations where you may need more.

Under environmentally or physically stressful situations (extreme heat or cold, long duration of strenuous exertion), our body requires even more water to maintain proper function.

Establish a routine for regularly drinking water throughout the day, and listen to your body when it tells you that you need more.

By the time you are thirsty, you are already clinically dehydrated.

Aim to get the majority of your water from non-caffeinated, nonalcoholic, non-caloric beverages.

Practice Mindful Eating

In a busy world, it can be easy to look at our meals as just another thing that has to get done. For some people, meal time may even feel like a waste of time, and they look for ways to make that time more efficient by multitasking.

This can certainly be the case in the firehouse as well. With a busy schedule, “chores” to do and never knowing when that next call may come, the thought of a peaceful, leisurely meal may seem like a fantasy, not reality. There are many simple ways to remind ourselves to slow down and enjoy the process of fueling our bodies.

The premise of mindful eating is all about staying present to the moment; enjoying your meal and the people you share it with.

When you practice mindful eating, you are less likely to binge, overeat or make food choices that do not provide optimal health for your body.

Mindful Eating Tips

• Make one balanced plate of food and immediately put away the rest. Leaving food out on the counter is an unnecessary temptation to take more food, even when our body is giving us subtle cues of satiety. Put all leftovers away immediately and wait at least 10 minutes after completing your meal before considering seconds. And if you do go for seconds, make a second mini-meal (balance of protein and veggies and healthy fat). Do not just grab extra of one component of the meal.

• Put your fork or spoon on the table between each bite. Chew and swallow completely before picking up the utensil for another bite. Many people find additional ways to add to this concept: chewing a certain number of times, having a sip of water between each bite of food, etc. Whatever works for you is fine, but the key is not to mindlessly shovel in one bite of food on top of the other. Allow your body (and your mind) the time to savor each bite, and allow both to have the necessary time to process and indicate your satiety levels.

• Do not multitask while eating. Set aside time to enjoy your meal. Allow yourself to focus on what you are eating – its flavor, its texture and how your body feels. When we mindlessly shovel food in while performing other tasks, we tend to miss our bodies cues for satiety. We also miss the pure enjoyment of the food itself, leaving us feeling unsatisfied and wanting more.

• Plan all of your meals. When we have meals planned based on our fuel needs, we are less likely to off-road. This is especially important in the firehouse. Plan all meals around a clean-eating style for the main course (meat with vegetable and healthy fats) and if needed, have additional food choices available on the side for those not following a clean eating fuel plan. Choosing to eat healthfully for yourself does not have to be at the expense of choice for others, but others’ choices to not eat foods that contribute to their overall health should also not negatively affect you. In the firehouse, make it clear that all main meals will adhere to clean eating parameters and people can choose to bring or prepare their own foods on the side.

Remember, there are many investments you can make that will improve the fuel you provide your body. And there are many places you can start. You do not have to do everything at once or make every investment. But you do need to take that first step.

How will you fuel today?