Tools of the trade July 2017: Healthy fuel for firefighters

Simple nutrition tips to keep firefighters response-ready
Sean Kingswell
June 19, 2017
Written by Sean Kingswell
“Simple and consistent nutritional habits are most effective, without ever having to whisper the dreaded four letter word: D-I-E-T. “
“Simple and consistent nutritional habits are most effective, without ever having to whisper the dreaded four letter word: D-I-E-T. “
For good reason, firefighters pay a considerable amount of attention to keeping equipment properly fuelled.  Trucks, saws, fans and generators are regularly and meticulously checked. We all know how a machine runs with the wrong fuel or not enough fuel. It is equally important that firefighters fuel their bodies properly every day.
Improper fuel can affect performance, health and wellness. Of course, fuel for firefighters is not diesel or gasoline, but nutrition – more specifically, food and hydration.

Knowing a little bit about basic food composition and nutrients can be helpful. Macronutrients consist of protein (amino acids), carbohydrates (sugar, starch and fibre) and fats (saturated, unsaturated and trans fats). It is important to note that there are healthy and unhealthy versions of each macronutrient, but we can make conscious choices about the quality of food we consume. It is recommended that you look for the best sources of each, such as complete proteins (lean meats), unrefined carbohydrates (whole grain options) and unsaturated fats (olive oil and avocado). These food components all play an important role in our health, energy and physiology.

The main micronutrients are vitamins and minerals, which are important for many bodily functions, such as growth, digestion and proper brain function. Although micronutrients are not a source of energy, they do support the process of energy production. Explore opportunities to learn more about these basic dietary principals. It is important to note that eating a very low-carbohydrate diet can be problematic for firefighters. The majority of firefighting activities are done at a high-intensity for long periods of time; this sort of activity is predominantly fuelled when the body burns carbohydrates. Healthy carbohydrates are important to sustaining enough energy to complete our cumbersome workloads.

There are genuine considerations for firefighters when it cones to food, as poor food choices can lead to excess weight and other health issues. The consequences of an unhealthy body composition are well documented in fire fighting and, in some ways, are obvious based on the nature of the profession. Bad eating habits can lead to excess weight and cause issues such as higher cholesterol levels and high blood pressure.

Simple and consistent nutritional habits are most effective, without ever having to whisper the dreaded four letter word: D-I-E-T. Instead, firefighters should embrace balance. Balance is the key to wellness, as overly strict plans rarely succeed over time. In addition, there must be a balance between eating enough of the good things and not too much of the bad. We often talk a lot about avoiding calorie-dense foods, but many times we forget to focus on eating nutrient-dense foods.  

There are cultural considerations in the fire service. Just like any home, the kitchen is often the meeting area in a fire hall. Meals are a great part of the fire hall culture and an important social activity. But spending time in the kitchen can lead to eating too much. Portion control is important. Try using a smaller plate at the fire hall, and fill the plate only once. In addition, it is also a good idea to pack healthy choices with you to snack on throughout the day. Having good choices to grab on the run (and firefighters are often on the run) is essential to proper nutrition.

Distractions can also lead to overeating, as can eating too quickly on busy days at the fire hall. The food-wielding visitor is common character at most fire halls, bringing in options that are often less than healthy. Enjoying these treats brought by well-intentioned citizens is not a problem, as long as it is done in moderation.

Emotional eating is another possibility in the fire service, which serves as a good reminder of the interconnected nature of wellness. Firefighters experiencing increased levels of stress should adopt positive coping methods, such as talking to co-workers or exercise.

Fuel affects not only your health but also your performance on the fire ground.


Sean Kingswell is an experienced career firefighter, personal trainer, fitness coach and the creator of the FIRESAFECADETS program. This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it   @firesafecadets

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