Tactical Eating for Tactical Performance

Dietary intake among firefighters typically centers around quick and easy foods and what some might describe as a meat and potatoes culture.  “Firehouse meals” are those that are easy to make, can be eaten on the go, and can serve a lot of people [1].

Although it makes sense to eat this way, I think many Firefighters realize these foods aren’t always the healthiest. Research continually shows that upwards of 80% of firefighters are considered overweight or obese, which is higher than the general US population [2]. Obesity and poor diet increase risk for heart disease, which is the most common cause of duty-related death among firefighters, accounting for almost half of all fatalities [3].  Further, for every fatal heart-related event, there is an estimated 17 nonfatal heart-related events [3]. Beyond heart and health risks, high body fat percentages in career firefighters has been shown to be associated with lower muscle strength [4], which influences job performance and safety.

So what do you do?  It’s much easier to pick something up from the drive-thru or heat up a frozen meal, than plan and cook a healthy meal. Besides, healthy food is gross, right?!

As an exercise physiologist and certified sport nutritionist, I research how we can use nutrition and exercise to lose fat and gain muscle. Eating healthy doesn’t have to just look like eating a salad and raw veggies for every meal. So if I had to give two first steps towards eating healthier, I would start with eating more protein and more fiber.

1. Eat more protein.  There is an abundance of research showing that higher protein consumption is an effective approach for weight loss and improving health [5].  Especially when combined with a lower carbohydrate consumption, reduced calories, and exercise, higher protein diets have been shown to lead to greater fat loss, while minimizing loss of muscle mass [6, 7]. Even without changing anything else, greater habitual protein intake has been shown to be associated with lower BMI, lower waist circumference, and improved cholesterol, especially in overweight and obese individuals [8].  

Blue collar workers who consumed more protein were shown to have greater maximal and explosive strength [9], which is important for avoiding common injuries (i.e. slips, trips, or falls) [10]. Similarly, firefighters who habitually consumed greater than 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight (i.e. 80 grams of protein for a 175 pound man) had less body fat and a greater percentage of muscle than those who consumed less than 0.8 grams per kilogram (i.e. less than 64 grams of protein for a 175 pound man) [4].

Research supports consuming around 1.0 – 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass or about 20-30 grams of protein at each meal [11].  That might look like: 4 eggs (24g of PRO) + a large glass of milk (10g) or 3 turkey sausage links (11g), 1.5 chicken breasts (34g), or 1.5 tilapia fillets (30g).

When possible choose lean proteins (chicken, fish, lean beef) and dairy (milk and plain

Greek yogurt).  

For on-the-go, ready-to-drink protein shakes or protein bars are a great option.  Whey protein isolate is the highest quality protein and best for promoting muscle, fat loss, and metabolism. When picking a product, choose one that has at least 20 grams of whey or milk protein and a 1:1 or 2:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio (i.e. 20g or less of carbohydrates and 20 grams of protein).

2. Eat more fiber.  Fiber is essential for preventing a number of diseases, improving cholesterol, and regulating blood sugar [12]. Fiber has also been shown to be a key component in supporting gut health and the gut microbiota, which may have impacts on brain and psychological health, via the gut-brain axis [13].

It is recommended that you consume at least 30 grams of fiber per day [12].  Vegetables are a great source of fiber because they also provide an abundance of vitamins and minerals, but fruits with skin and whole grains are also a good choice.  When people hear vegetables, they think salad, but vegetables are so much more than salad. Peppers, onion, and spinach cooked with eggs makes for a great omelet. Bulk up spaghetti sauce with black beans, zucchini, butternut squash, and cooked spinach, in addition to lean ground beef or turkey meatballs.  Even frozen vegetables, that are chopped and ready to cook, make for a quick and easy addition to any meal while still maintaining high nutritional value.

So next time you cook a meal, start with a good portion of lean protein and then get creative with mixing (or disguising) the vegetables.  These are simple changes that can have some major health benefits.

Katie Hirsch is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.  Working in the Applied Physiology Lab, her research focuses on exercise and nutritional interventions for the improvement of body composition, health, and performance, with primary focuses on protein intake and high intensity interval training.  Katie is a certified exercise physiologist with the American College of Sports Medicine and a certified sport nutritionist with the International Society of Sport Nutrition.


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