If you had to describe a typical firehouse’s eating environment, what comes to mind? Family-style eating, large portions and classic home-style meals (high in fat and dense in refined carbohydrates and calories) are often present. Excess caloric intake due to unhealthy eating habits, such as large portion sizes and snacking (due to staying up longer hours), may contribute to the obesity epidemic within the fire service. In an effort to decrease barriers to healthy eating within a firehouse, I put together these seven tips that can be implemented to improve a firehouse's nutrition environment:
1. Avoid Takeout: Restaurant foods typically come in large portions and are high in calories and sodium. Because of the well-established connection between consuming foods high in sodium and increased risk of hypertension (high blood pressure), in addition to heart disease and stroke, it’s important to know where the sodium in our diets is coming from. A classic statement I like to stress is if you’re not preparing the food, then you don’t know what’s in it. If eating out at a chain restaurant, take a look at the nutrition information for their menu items, especially the sodium content. Next, compare these values to recommended daily sodium amounts, which include a lower limit for at-risk groups (1,500 mg) and an upper limit (2,300 mg, which is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of salt).
2. Plan meals and food shopping: A little organizing is key to success here, as it gives you the ability to prepare healthy meals and snacks in advance. In addition, you may be less inclined to eat anything in sight when you’re hungry because a game plan is already in the works. A helpful budget tip is to read over the supermarket circulars and coupons before planning your firehouse dishes. This will help you to stick to both your budget and healthy eating plan, not to mention being a significant time-saver in the long run.
3. Substitute healthy ingredient swaps and recipe alternatives: One way that small nutrition changes can add up is to incorporate more healthful options into your diet. Examples include turning to whole grain options rather than refined carbohydrates; choosing lean proteins, such as chicken, turkey and seafood; and concentrating on using healthy fats, such as monounsaturated fats (olive oil, avocado, nuts, etc.). Another tip is to add vegetables to dishes to add extra bulk, fiber and nutrients. These vegetables can sometimes be hidden, for example, with grated zucchini or carrots mixed into ground meat, zucchini noodles mixed with pasta or even greens added to a smoothie. Try incorporating the change little by little for optimal success. For example, if currently baking with white flour, try using half white flour and half whole-wheat flour.
4. Watch portion sizes: It’s no secret that America’s portion sizes have increased over the past 30 years or so. A serving is the amount recommended for a food, while a portion is what you take yourself (often larger than a serving). Portion distortion is a classic misunderstanding of what a portion size is. The concern here is what happens when we eat more than a serving and don’t realize how the extra food affects our health, energy intake, and weight over both short- and long-term periods. As a simple exercise, look at a nutrition label for one of your favorite foods and identify the serving size, or check out MyPlate.gov for recommended servings for foods such as protein, dairy, fruits and more. Another option is to take a quiz on portion distortion by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI): http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/eat-right/portion-distortion.htm.
5. Take notice of added sugar: Added sugars—such as table sugar, syrups and honey—are in more foods than you might think. We tend to think of sugar being in baked goods, sodas and candies, and typically underestimate its presence in other foods. Added sugars are found in many processed foods, including those that are commonly deemed “healthy,” such as yogurts, sauces, cereals and nutrition bars. It’s important to pay attention to sugar intake because food and beverages high in sugar tend to be high in calories and lack nutritional value. Too much sugar in your diet may increase your risk for obesity, heart disease and other nutrition-related health conditions. Hence, the latest Dietary Guidelines recommends limiting added sugar intake to no more than 10 percent of your total calories.
To combat the urge to turn to sugar-sweetened snacks, keep healthy snacks stocked so that there are quick and go-to nutritious and satisfying options available. Decrease sugar-sweetened beverages by turning to water, fruit-infused waters or flavored seltzers. We are more likely to eat foods left on the countertop, even if we’re not hungry. As such, keep the healthier options, such as cut-up fruits and vegetables, at eye-level in the refrigerator and on the counter. Put cookies, chips, sweets, etc., away in cabinets; this forces us to make a conscious effort to eat them.
6. Practice mindful eating: The firehouse environment tends to encourage mindless eating, or eating on autopilot. For the overwhelming majority, unconscious eating makes us eat more than originally expected, which in turn can lead to weight gain. Examples include eating while watching TV or eating out of boredom because holiday donations are at eye-level on the counter. Even during downtime, eating patterns are influenced by the potential of a call, which may cause firefighters to eat large portions quickly, delaying feelings of satiety (feeling full), in order to get a meal in before the next call. In an effort to focus on adopting healthy eating habits without creating any dietary restrictions, try incorporating mindful eating, or the idea of eating with attention and awareness, while listening to our internal cues. Examine current eating habits and ask the following questions: why, what, how and when are we eating? Next, think about eating pace, how much we are eating, and how we feel afterwards. By implementing these strategies, we can start focusing on how and why we eat, which, in turn, may help us understand how our food choices affect our health and performance.
7. Get the community involved: Keep the community informed on your efforts to make a healthier firehouse. By doing so, it allows for the community to be more mindful of its food donations. This is especially important during the holiday season, as donations are typically high-calorie comfort meals and or sweets.
Some ideas: Display the department’s health and wellness efforts on social media or even pitch a story about it to the local newspaper. You could include a picture showing firefighters cooking a healthy meal, displaying a community garden or taking part in a shift workout. The department could even take to social media during the holidays to express their thanks for donations and encouraging those that support the department’s ongoing health initiatives.
Implementing changes to a nutrition environment may not be an easy or well-received initiative by all. But taking the time and effort to address these tips is a step in the right direction toward seeing positive, sustainable changes at a cultural level—changes that impact firefighters’ health and performance for the better. These changes don’t have to be drastic; in fact, introducing these tips slowly and in a way that fits comfortably into firefighters’ diets is key.