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A Burning Need for a Healthy Diet

You are in the business of fighting fires, protecting property, saving people from injury and even death. It's what you do and you do it well. But how attentive are you to your own health and your body's needs for optimal performance?

In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied on-duty deaths among volunteer and career firefighters from 1994-2004. They discovered one-half of the deaths among volunteer and 39 percent among career firefighters were caused by heart attacks. In 2007, Harvard researchers found the median age of on-duty death from heart attack was 47 for volunteer and 44 for career firefighters.

"The physical demands on firefighters and emergency responders can be extremely strenuous," says Chris Johnson, owner of North Bay Safety and a volunteer firefighter with the Healdsburg Fire Department in Healdsburg, CA.

Key to heart disease prevention is a lifestyle that includes regular physical activity and a healthy diet. Johnson adds, "We (firefighters) are good at addressing the physical training needs of our job, but often our need for a healthy diet goes unchecked and even ignored."

Here are a few strategies you can use to improve your diet and heart health.

Eat More Fruits And Vegetables

If you are looking for that one vital piece of advice that will improve your diet, it is to simply eat more fruits and vegetables. Eating at least two cups of fruit and two and a half cups of vegetables a day will go a long way toward reducing heart disease risk.

Add a serving of fruit to each meal and two servings of vegetables at lunch and dinner. Focus on variety by choosing dark green, leafy vegetables (such as broccoli, spinach, and kale) as well as bright-colored vegetables (such as bell peppers, tomatoes, and carrots.) Salads are always a versatile way to bring in a variety of vegetables.

Choose Healthy Fats

Not all fats are created equal. Some promote heart health while others increase our risk of heart disease and diabetes. The worst dietary fats are saturated and trans fats. Both raise total and LDL (the bad) cholesterol levels. Saturated fats are found in animal products such as meat, whole milk dairy, and eggs, and some vegetable oils such as coconut and palm. Trans fats are found in foods containing hydrogenated oils, baked goods, and fried foods.

Healthier fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Both lower total and LDL cholesterol levels. Healthier fats are found in plant oils such as canola, peanut, and olive as well as in avocados, nuts, and seeds. The heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids are found in walnuts and fatty fish such as salmon, herring, and sardines.

Boosting healthy fats in your diet is as easy as eating fish twice a week, adding avocado to your sandwich or salad, or replacing chips with on an ounce of walnuts for a snack.

Eat More Whole Grains

Healthy carbohydrates, especially whole grains, provide lasting energy. In a business where sustaining energy is key to performance, whole grain foods such as whole wheat bread; whole grain crackers, tortillas, bagels, and pasta; and oats, brown rice, and popcorn are smart choices.

Limit refined carbohydrates, such as foods made with white flour and refined sugar. Refining strips the grain of the bran, fiber, and nutrients. Foods made with these ingredients digest quickly, causing spikes in blood sugar that leave you feeling low in energy, possibly hindering performance.

Put Protein In Perspective

It's true, a lack of protein in our diet can reduce muscle mass and weaken the heart and respiratory system. However, most Americans get ample protein without adding hefty portions of meat or supplementing with protein drinks.

The key to fitting meat into a healthy diet is to treat meat as part of the meal, not the focus. Limiting meats to six ounces a day (equivalent to two decks of cards) and making lean choices such as top sirloin, ground chuck, or skinless poultry, can help keep the cholesterol-raising saturated fat to a minimum.

Think outside the package of meat twice a week and substitute vegetable protein for animal protein. Vegetable proteins include beans, lentils, nuts, nut butters, and soy products. Try a bean burrito, hummus sandwich, or veggie burger instead of your usual meat selection and gain the health benefits of protein with cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber and less saturated fat.

Snack Smart

Snacking can be a way to add healthy foods to your diet. But most convenient packaged snack foods - think chips, crackers, and cookies - are usually high in fat, sugar, and sodium.

Smart snacks include fruits (fresh or dried), vegetables, nuts, yogurt, nut butters, whole grain cereals and popcorn. Having these foods easily accessible can entice healthy snacking. Store pre-cut vegetables in the station refrigerator. Experiment with dipping sauces - salsa, almond butter, or hummus with your vegetables. Get the word out to your community when bearing thank you gifts that fruit is just as appreciated as ice cream and cupcakes.

Watch The Sweetened Beverages

Recent research has shown consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with increased risk for obesity and diabetes, both risk factors for heart disease.

American adults consume an average of 28 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda, sports drinks, and fruit drinks (not 100 percent fruit juice) a day. The American Heart Association recommends limiting sugar-sweetened beverages to 450 calories (about 36 oz) a week.

The best alternative for quenching thirst is water. Diet sodas can be a good alternative to regular sodas, but better yet try sparkling or seltzer water with a splash of 100 percent fruit juice for a low-calorie beverage. Don't forget 1 percent or nonfat milk. The combination of fat, protein, and carbohydrate is an excellent energy booster and the calcium is important for maintaining bone strength.

With almost half of on-duty firefighter deaths due to heart attacks, it's apparent that firefighters need more than the best personal protective equipment for their health and safety. A healthy diet is necessary to minimize heart attack risk and optimize meeting the physical demands of the job.

JEANNIE GAZZANIGA-MOLOO PhD, RD is a registered dietitian, national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, cookbook author, and freelance writer in Sacramento, CA. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) is the leading nonprofit membership association representing the interests of the volunteer fire, EMS, and rescue services. The NVFC serves as the voice of the volunteer in the national arena and provides invaluable tools, resources, programs, and advocacy for first responders across the nation. Programs include the Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program, a heart attack and heart disease prevention campaign targeted at all firefighters and EMS personnel, both volunteer and career. Learn more at www.nvfc.org and www.healthy-firefighter.org.

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