The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

There’s a lot of talk in the fire service these days about leadership whether formal informal or simply the lack thereof. Sometimes however leadership can present itself in some unlikely places–like the station kitchen.

When you think about it the people doing the cooking in the firehouse have to make some important decisions on a daily basis–decisions that can greatly impact the well-being of their crew. These “firehouse chefs” hold your life in their hands.

Although the effects of eating unhealthy food may not be as immediate as the effects of a roof falling in on you in the long run what these chefs prepare for you will significantly influence your health. So to all the firehouse chefs out there: Plan meals that will not only fill up the crew and taste good but also promote a healthy body weight and reduce the risk of heart disease diabetes and other weight-related diseases. But how?


Get to Know Your Carbs

First things first: Plan your meals before you go shopping. Make a list and stick to it; avoid impulse purchases like chips ice cream cakes and those “on sale” candy bars at the checkout counters.

Read nutrition-facts labels to know what you’re buying and eating. Reading labels provides a wealth of information including a list of ingredients the number of calories per serving number of servings per container and the amount (in grams) of fat saturated fat trans fats protein carbohydrate sodium cholesterol etc. for each serving. For non-packaged foods many of these values are posted on the Internet.

Monitor the amount of fat you consume in each meal. In last month’s article (“Less Is More ” September p. 210) we advised you to keep your total fat to about 25 percent of your total calories limit your saturated fats to less than 7 percent and try to completely eliminate trans fats. Beware: Just because the bold print on the front of the package says “No Trans Fats” doesn’t mean these fats haven’t been replaced with saturated fats which are dangerous in their own right.

Fat will be a factor when meeting your protein requirements. Roughly 20—25 percent of your daily caloric intake should be from protein. Although there’s no “good” or “bad” protein protein from animal sources (meat and dairy products) usually contains saturated fat. Watch the amount of fat content in your chosen protein source.

Approximately 50—55 percent of your total caloric intake should come from carbohydrates which are found in breads pasta rice fruit candy vegetables jams etc. Carbs come in two forms: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates–found in table sugar honey fruit and corn syrup–are either monosaccharides or disaccharides. Monosaccharides consist of one sugar molecule and include glucose fructose and galactose. Disaccharides have two sugar molecules and include sucrose lactose and maltose.

Complex carbohydrates are polysaccharides meaning they’re made of more than two sugar molecules. Complex carbohydrates include starch glycogen cellulose and pectin and are found in the starches and fibers from vegetables fruits and grains.

Fiber is an important part of any diet. Fiber is a super-complex carbohydrate and is not digestible. It comes in two forms: soluble and insoluble. Although very different in their effects they are equally important to include in your diet. Soluble fiber appears to bind up cholesterol allowing it to be “eliminated.” If enough is removed it can lower your blood cholesterol 10—15 percent. Soluble fiber can be found in oatmeal oat bran fruit psyllium barley and legumes (beans). Insoluble fiber acts like an internal scrubber so to speak and can be found in wheat rye vegetables beans and grains.

It’s rarely a problem to include enough carbohydrates into your diet; the real challenge is finding the best quality carbs to fuel your body. One factor in picking the right carb source: the nature of the carbs like complex over simple. The other factor is processing. The extent of refinement of foods high in carbohydrates can make them healthy or unhealthy. “Garbage carbs” are usually refined or processed to their simplest form and then combined with a plethora of mystery ingredients most of us can’t even pronounce. Candy soda many fruit juices and other “junk food” items fall into this category. Moderation is key when including these items in your diet.

Stick to whole grains as opposed to refined grains. When grains are refined bran is removed taking much of the dietary fiber and vitamins with it. Additionally processing can impact the glycemic index of the food which we’ll address later. So try to get most of your carb calories from whole complex carbohydrates sources such as whole grain breads pastas and cereals to help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease digestive tract problems and obesity.


Glucose vs. Fructose

Unfortunately fighting obesity can be like fighting a hidden enemy. If you take the time to read food labels you’ll be shocked to see how many food items contain sugar. And we’re not just talking about the dessert items but foods you wouldn’t consider “sweet.” Because so much of the sugar we consume is “hidden ” we end up eating way too much. The USDA recommends a maximum of 12 teaspoons a day; however most Americans consume about 31 teaspoons a day usually without even realizing it. The main culprit is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which is used in soda sports drinks fruit juices yogurts barbeque sauce ketchup health bars and bread to name a few.

But what is HFCS? It’s a sweetener produced by processing cornstarch to form highly concentrated glucose/fructose syrup. This process is a complex multistage refinement. The end product is a syrup which is cheap easy to transport and easy to incorporate into a multitude of food products. Interestingly all this processing is actually cheaper than the basic refinement of good old beet or cane sugar.

So what’s the big deal? Food manufacturers have found an inexpensive way to sweeten food. Unfortunately as is usually the case when you mess with Mother Nature there’s a much higher price to pay than the trivial exchange at the register. Although the jury is still out on the long-term effects of excessive amounts of fructose some of the early indications are that fructose triggers significantly different reactions within our bodies than nature’s preferred source of carbohydrates–glucose.

When we ingest glucose a host of chemical reactions take place including the release of insulin which transports glucose into your cells for use and the release of appetite-suppressing hormones that signal the body that it’s had enough to eat. Feeling full isn’t just a physical sensation.

Studies out of the University of California at Davis and the University of Minnesota suggest a different story for fructose. One study indicates that fructose acts more like a fat in the digestive process generating concerns about how high quantities affect the liver. Fructose has to be metabolized by the liver to render glucose making its availability for energy use considerably slower than other forms of sugar. Also the liver converts fructose into the chemical backbone of triglycerides more easily than glucose. The study showed that individuals eating a diet high in fructose had significantly higher blood levels of triglycerides which have been associated with heart disease.

A point of particular interest to the majority of the firefighting force: These results were notably more significant in the male subjects than the female subjects. Additionally fructose does not stimulate the same hormonal reaction as glucose. Prior to being metabolized into glucose fructose does not stimulate an insulin response or the release of any of the appetite-suppressing hormones. Thus you should always read your labels minimize your simple sugar intake and keep your foods as unrefined as possible.

One last consideration is the glycemic index (GI) of the foods you’re consuming. GI refers to the rate at which the carbohydrate enters the bloodstream. Glucose is the standard and has the highest GI rating of 100. Several good resources online provide GI information for a variety of foods such as

Because high-GI foods enter the blood stream more quickly they create spikes in your blood sugar levels stimulating a dramatic insulin response. If you’ve just finished a grueling event or gone through two to three bottles at a fire you should eat high-GI foods preferably within 30 minutes post-exertion.

However if you eat these foods too often as part of your daily diet the constant spikes in blood sugar and insulin can desensitize your cells to the insulin. Eventually cells will require more and more insulin just to get the glucose in. This causes your pancreas to work a lot harder than normal which can lead to Type 2 diabetes.


Simple Solutions to Complex Subjects

Although nutrition is a complex topic staying healthy comes down to a few simple solutions: Keep your diet balanced read labels so you know what you’re putting in your body and avoid refined foods when choosing your firehouse meals. If firehouse chefs start here you’ll see that getting your crew on the right path toward proper nutrition isn’t as big a mystery as it seems.

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