By Maureen Stoecklein
So much of what firefighters encounter during a shift at the fire station is out of our control. Call volume, nature of calls, time of calls, mealtimes, hours of sleep, outdoor climate, shift dynamics … each of these impacts a firefighter’s short- and long-term health. Statistically, firefighters die early, with the average life expectancy much lower than that of the average population. Cancer, heart disease, and stroke are just a few of the leading causes of death both on the job and leading into retirement. These uncontrollable factors add up over time and take a toll, leaving us physically and mentally exhausted, injured, sick, or unable to perform the tasks of our job.
One of the most controllable aspects of the job and life as a firefighter is the foods we choose for fuel. Premium fuel optimizes mind and body function to be more prepared for the physical and mental stressors we encounter on shift. This means staying ahead of hydration needs, eating more fruits and vegetables, and eating less processed food. The body functions best when our brain, muscles, tissues, and organs are hydrated and well fed. By choosing high-quality food, firefighters not only increase their ability to work effectively and efficiently on a daily basis but we also set ourselves up for a healthier, more enjoyable retirement.
The human body requires adequate hydration to function properly. Firefighters are a high hydration risk from the equipment we wear and the excessive exposure to heat. Dehydration is defined as a 2% loss in body weight during activity (for example, 4 pounds in a 200-pound person). Additionally, a 3% loss significantly impairs performance (i.e., 6 pounds in a 200-pound person). Common sweat rates can range from one to four pounds per hour, depending on genetics, gender, conditioning, sweat composition, and the climate. To adequately replenish, you need to consume 16 to 24 ounces of fluid for each pound of water you lose in sweat.
Sweat also contains electrolytes such as sodium and potassium, which need to be considered and replaced. Incorporating sodium and potassium-rich foods in meals and snacks throughout the shift can ensure these nutrients are available when they are needed most. Electrolytes help your body retain more of the fluid you drink. Potatoes, avocados, bananas, apricots, milk, and yogurt are all potassium-rich foods. Sports drinks help with hydration and provide carbohydrates for energy and electrolytes to replace losses in sweat. However, the amount of sugar in these products (5 teaspoons of added sugar in one bottle) is not ideal. Be cautious with the low-calorie or calorie-free versions of electrolyte replacement drinks. Many of these drinks contain artificial sweeteners, which could lead to GI distress, bloating, and an upset stomach. Try this simple recipe to make your own sports drink. Mix the following drink at the beginning of shift and sip on it throughout the day along with water. This will help keep you ahead of hydration needs and avoid dehydration in the event of a busy, eventful day. Two factors affect how well a drink keeps you hydrated: the amount you drink and the composition of the drink (electrolytes).
Revitalizing Electrolyte Drink
¾ cup fresh squeezed orange juice
Juice from ½ fresh lemon
8 oz. water or coconut water (unsweetened)
1-2 pinches of salt
Blend and enjoy!
Eating more fruits and vegetables is another controllable and easy way to improve a firefighter’s mental and physical performance and quality of life. This means shifting our focus from macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) to micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Macronutrients are the nutrients our bodies require in large amounts for normal growth, development, and energy. Micronutrients are the nutrients we need for energy production, recovery from activity, controlling inflammation, maintaining healthy immune function, and fighting disease. As a population, we have become focused on ensuring we eat enough protein, avoiding or eliminating carbohydrates and avoiding or depending primarily on fat for fuel. Often this comes at the expense of eating plenty of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, our main source of these vital micronutrients.
Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the day is the best way to be sure we are consuming enough of all the different vitamins and minerals we need to stay healthy and perform the tasks of our job. Trying to eat 5-6 servings of fruits and vegetables per day can be challenging but is recommended and a great way to get the micronutrients we need. Starting the morning with fresh berries in your oatmeal, bright colored peppers and spinach chopped in an omelet, avocado toast with fresh tomato, and toasted peanut butter and banana sandwiches are all examples of high energy morning fuel and easy ways to boost your micronutrient intake. Try this nutrient-rich smoothie for a breakfast on the go.
Triple Berry Smoothie
8-10 oz. milk of choice (skim or 2% milk or an unsweetened plant-based milk)
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1 cup frozen triple berry fruit
½ frozen banana
1 tbsp chia seeds (rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, fiber, and protein)
1 large handful of spinach
Blend and enjoy!
Finally, eating less processed food is another controllable way to vastly improve performance at the fire station and longevity moving into retirement. The thought of processed foods probably brings to mind packaged food items containing many ingredients including artificial colors, flavors, or other chemical additives. These are often referred to as convenience or prepared foods. These foods have been suggested to contribute to obesity and chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. We become dependent on these foods when life gets busy or when we don’t have mindful healthy food choices on hand at home and at the station.
Unprocessed or minimally processed foods include the natural edible food parts of plants and animals. Minimally processed foods have been slightly altered for the purpose of preservation, like freezing or pasteurizing, but that does not significantly change the nutrition content of the food. Many fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, meats, and milk fall into this category of minimally processed foods. By using food preparation methods like grilling, baking, roasting, and steaming of minimally processed foods, we will more likely obtain the nutrients that build resiliency against many common diseases. When the body and brain are well nourished, we are more prepared to withstand the health challenges and stresses of firefighting.
The way we eat can help boost our mental and physical health as firefighters. Eating more whole foods like fruits and vegetables and adopting more of a Mediterranean-style of eating–one rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, legumes, whole grains and cereals, fish, and unsaturated fats–can improve a firefighter’s energy systems and overall well-being. Shifting from highly processed, high-sugar, and high-fat foods at the station to more whole foods (fruits, veggies, unsaturated fats, grains, legumes, and lean meats) can improve performance and overall brain and body health and increase longevity moving into retirement. Small changes each day will have a tremendous impact on the quality of time we spend celebrating and enjoying our years of service to the communities we serve.
Maureen Stoecklein is a firefighter/paramedic with the Canton Township (MI) Fire Department with 21 years of service. She is a registered dietitian and team dietitian for the New York Mets with a BS in dietetics.