They say, “There’s nothing like experiencing your first fire.” As a non-firefighter, I never thought of the possibility of experiencing a fire, nor did I ever want to. My first major introduction to the fire community came during graduate school when my apartment complex caught fire. After watching the firefighters fight the flames for hours in the bitter cold, I noticed a lack of food for firefighters, so I called a friend to ask for a favor. My inclination was to get bagels, donuts and coffee, but it wasn’t until after the fire diminished that I asked myself why I chose those options; after all, I was in graduate school for nutrition. I never thought I would be analyzing this decision in such depth again, not until two years ago, when I was approached to design a nutrition program for a fire department.
With data from an NVFC study indicating that over two-thirds of firefighters are overweight or obese, it is imperative to find new approaches to curb this trend. As we know, the keys to losing weight and reducing the risk of heart disease are nutrition and exercise. As such, an important step in modifying behavior is to increase firefighters’ awareness of the connections among nutrition and health, fitness and performance, primarily through nutrition education.
For the past two years, I’ve worked on developing programs that focus on improving nutrition environments within fire departments. Through experimentation and experience, I’ve put together the following steps to use as a guideline for implementing a nutrition program at your own department.
Step 1: Assess department’s needs
Creating a nutrition program specific to the unique needs of firefighters is essential for success. For instance, unpredictable work tasks and interruptions may influence unhealthy eating behaviors. By identifying factors influencing weight issues within the fire service, we can work on implementing environmental changes that can help reverse the trend of unhealthy eating habits. Collecting baseline information through a combination of methods—such as survey and observation—is a good starting point.
Collect baseline information: It is important to gain baseline information when working with fire personnel to identify nutritional problems and concerns and to understand their nutrition goals. Data collection will vary based on departments’ needs and the proposed structure of a program. Information collected could relate to health data, such as weight and/or body composition, or even their attitudes and beliefs about consuming a healthy diet.
Assess readiness to change: Determine if firefighters are interested in making nutritional changes. Assess their attitudes and beliefs toward adopting positive nutrition behaviors as well as their perceived barriers to making such changes. This information will be critical to developing a tailored intervention that will meet the firefighters’ unique needs.
Seek outside help: For maximum success, establish relationships with nutrition and health professionals in order to create a program that is nutritionally and scientifically sound.
Step 2: Create nutrition initiatives
Firefighter culture is built upon a long history. As such, an approach to improve healthy weights among firefighters must be culturally sensitive to firefighters’ traditions and values. Some food-specific traditions include firehouse family-style meals, large portion sizes, and recipes and dishes that are often high in calories, fat and refined carbohydrates. In addition, meal preparations are time-sensitive due to potential calls. Hence, incorporating firefighters’ feedback into program planning is crucial for the viability of a nutrition program.
Make initiatives relevant: The key to success for implementing a nutrition program is to make nutrition goals and initiatives not only relevant but also of interest to firefighters. You can always start with the nutrition essentials that are pertinent to most firefighters. Some ideas: presenting a basic nutrition lecture, providing healthy snack ideas, recreating firehouse classic meals with healthier alternatives.
When it comes to healthy snacks, the key is to find snacks that provide sustainable energy for optimal job performance. This could mean include a combination of fruit, nuts and plain yogurt; some cut-up vegetables with guacamole or hummus dips; or even some whole grain bread or sweet potato with nut butter.
Another way to improve a firefighter’s diet involves simple ingredient swaps to traditional recipes. An effective example is to use lean protein sources, such as chicken sausage, instead of pork sausage. For common pasta dishes, incorporate white pasta alternatives, such as whole grain, spaghetti squash or zucchini noodle options.
Ensure buy-in: Next, include firefighters in the planning process to help ensure buy-in. This could involve, for example, an anonymous open-ended survey addressing firefighters’ nutrition goals and learning interests. Anonymity allows for more honest and detailed responses, which in turn will provide more information that can be helpful in the planning process.
Create structure: Determine the format of trainings based on the resources available. Including a variety of educational tools, such as presentations, activities and newsletters on nutrition topics allows for different approaches to encouraging healthy dietary practices. Some sample activities include learning how to read a nutrition label, calculating how many teaspoons of sugar are in your favorite food and beverages, and providing a portion distortion game that examines what a serving looks like compared to what you may be eating. Further, team orientation in groups serves as an ideal promotional strategy, as crews bond, cook and eat together while on shift. Addressing nutrition concerns on both group and individual levels strengthens the adoption of healthy eating habits and may maximize the potential success of a nutrition program.
Introduce initiatives in a realistic manner: Because sustainable positive changes (instead of quick fixes) are goals of a nutrition program, it is crucial to promote balance and small change, rather than an “all or nothing” approach to nutrition. Creating a supportive environment that advocates healthy behaviors and raises new initiatives when warranted can serve as a way to keep firefighters on track to sustaining healthy dietary behaviors. Starting with small goals that lead to progress will help enhance a wellness program by providing sustainable and manageable results. For example, a realistic goal may be to decrease the amount of sugar (i.e., sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets) within the firehouse. Another goal could be to focus on cooking nutritious meals in-house rather than relying on takeout options that tend to be high in sodium and calories.
Step 3: Monitor and evaluate the program
Creating a successful and progressive nutrition program involves experimentation. Understanding what works comes through trial and error and feedback from the department. Hence, monitoring and evaluating a program’s successes and weaknesses will allow for a positive evolution of a program.
Assess results: This will vary based on how the information was collected and what variables are being measured over a desired period of time. For instance, you could measure objective results, such as weight loss, physical changes, or observed behaviors. Another option would be to measure subjective results, such as feedback from firefighters about the program and its impact. Having both subjective and objective measures is ideal.
Make adjustments: Modify the program based on results and responses from the department members. Even if firefighters are involved in the process of program planning, it is uncertain how they will react to such a program until changes are put into place. Adjust approaches and initiatives along the way, and evaluate successes and drawbacks of the program from individual, group and leadership perspectives.
Sustain interest and progress: Approaching the issue at large on a cultural level may provide the best results. Advancing wellness practices should be part of ongoing safety initiatives adopted by the fire service. This encourages continued interest, education and awareness.
An anonymous firefighter’s response to a feedback survey after a nutrition presentation has stuck with me. He said, “This gets you thinking about something that a lot of us don’t stop to think about every day. We sometimes take better care of our cars than we do ourselves.” Increasing nutrition awareness is a step in the right direction to improving firefighter health.