Obtaining optimum levels of health and fitness requires a strategy that provides proper nutrition to meet the needs of the firefighter. What you eat will have a direct impact on how you perform, how you feel and how you look. Healthy food choices may also help prevent major medical problems such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease to name a few.
There is a lot of information out there about nutrition. It seems like a new “diet” becomes popular every few months. Many are based on sound principles, but there is no magic formula or one size fits all eating plan that is perfect for everyone. It is important to understand some basic nutrition principles and eating strategies that will work for you. Healthy cookbooks may also be valuable tools in helping you get started with quality meal planning and adherence to consistent eating habits.
Take a close look at what you eat from day to day. There are some basic principles that firefighters should adhere to. Here we make simple suggestions about what to increase in your daily intake and what to decrease:
- Water – It is vital that firefighters stay hydrated year round.
- Vegetables – Terrific source of vitamins and minerals.
- Protein – Many firefighters underestimate their daily protein needs. Protein is an important part of improving strength and maintaining/gaining lean body mass. Consider eating .08 – 1.0 grams per pound of body weight.
- Healthy Fats – Fat has had a bad wrap over the years, but it is an important part of a healthy diet. Include healthy monounsaturated fats in your diet such as olive oil, avacado and nuts. Get your omega 3 fatty acids from fish such as wild Alaskan salmon or omega 3 enriched eggs.
- Sugar – Sugar is one of the worst things we can eat, but it is found everywhere. Even “healthy” foods such as yogurt and granola are often loaded with sugar. Look at your nutrition labels and try to limit your daily sugar intake.
- Unhealthy Fats – Trans fats are also on the “foods to avoid” list. Look at food labels and avoid trans fats. Saturated Fats (beef for example) aren’t all bad in moderation, just don’t overdo it.
- Starch/High Glyemic Carbs – Vegetables are the best source of nutrient dense carbohydrates. Other sources of carbohydrates should be lower on the glycemic index. For example brown rice instead of white rice, sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes, etc.
- Alcohol Intake – Consume alcohol in moderation for obvious reasons. Too much alcohol will have a negative impact on your fitness level and body composition.
Every positive change you make in your daily nutrient intake is another step towards reaching your fire fighter fitness goals.
We know that what we eat is the most important part of good firefighter nutrition. Portion sizes are important as well. The “rule of palm” is a good guideline. Your serving of protein should be roughly the size of your palm, your carbohydrate serving should be roughly the size of your cupped hands and you should try to include some sort of vegetable with every meal. Include healthy fats throughout the day as well.
Nutrient timing is a more advanced eating strategy that may have a positive impact on performance and body composition. Consider eating a large part of your calories and carbohydrates early in the day and right after your workout. Meals after 4pm should be comprised of lean meats, vegetables and healthy fats. The exception would be a post-workout meal in the evening.
Calorie Counting and Cycling
Calorie counting and cycling are advanced strategies that are unnecessary for most people. These strategies are helpful for those that are already fairly lean and have mastered the other strategies listed above. If you are interested in counting calories, there are many formulas available to calculate your caloric needs based on your body weight, activity level and body composition goals. The Harris-Benedict formula and the Katch-Mcardle formula are available online. Cycling calories typically involves a calorie deficit for 2-3 days followed by a day of calorie surplus.
The first cookbook we recommend is “Eating for Life”, by Bill Phillips. This book has been very popular at our fire stations. Each recipe is healthy, easy to prepare and easy to adjust for more or less people. A days worth of meals from this book might include:
- Breakfast: Golden Pancakes (delicous and packed with protein).
- Snack: Hardboiled Eggs and Oranges (healthy snack to hold you over until lunch).
- Lunch: Chicken Cilantro Burrito (well balanced, hearty meal).
- Snack: Chocolate Peanut Butter Shake (protein powder, peanut butter and banana. Great post-workout).
- Dinner: Balsamic Salmon Salad (protein, healthy fats, and vegetables).
The second cookbook we recommend is “the Paleo Solution”, by Robb Wolf. This book has a lot of great recipes and information for those that may have gluten sensitivity or want to avoid grains, dairy, etc.
- Breakfast: Sweet Potato Hash (very filling start to the day).
- Snack: Beef Jerky, Almonds and Apple (light balance snack).
- Lunch: Chicken Fajita Salad (tasty and easy to prepare).
- Dinner: Halibut with Roasted Asparagus (balanced and healthy).
The key to healthy firefighter nutrition is to select the eating strategies that are realistic for you. You don’t have to change everything overnight. Pick one or two of the basics and go from there. Try more advanced strategies after you get comfortable with the basics. Find a few cookbooks that you really like and you will use on a regular basis. Proper nutrition is the key to optimal health, performance and body composition.