Health & Wellness: A Nutritional Cultural Shift

Sept. 1, 2019
Dana Harrison says that a healthy game plan for firefighters needs to be a lifestyle, not a diet.

The state of firefighters’ health is at its worst and poses a major threat to the entire community. More than 70 percent of firefighters are overweight or obese according to the National Volunteer Fire Council, 2011, which impacts the general health and physical shape of these firefighters, as well as their job performance. Yet, we know that the very people we rely on to serve and help others can’t do so without first helping themselves. Add occupational risks, such as the rise of cancer rates, heart disease, and various barriers that stand in the way of having a healthy eating environment, and we have a unique and complex group of factors to address within the fire service.

Nutrition is one of the only modifiable factors that impacts our weight and health. So, if weight loss, the improvement of general health, or even decreasing risks of mortality are of interest, there’s a significant chance that better food choices will have a positive influence on your health. But we tend to address these problems from a nutrition standpoint in the wrong way—by focusing on dieting (over and over again).

Here’s what tends to happen: You take an honest assessment of your health and decide that you’d like to lose some weight—let’s say 10 pounds. You’re ready to make some changes to your eating and/or exercise routine, but you don’t know where to start. So, you turn to the internet to find a diet that promises quick results (some probably sounding too good to be true) or maybe you decide to go on the same diet that someone else tried because “it worked for them.” Regardless of what you decide, you’re all in … until you’re not. If this picture resonates with you as someone who’s dieted before, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in great company, as approximately 45 million Americans go on a diet each year according to Boston Medical Center, 2019. Yet, we still have a health crisis at large as changes aren’t sticking and health outcomes aren’t improving.

Nutrition has become so incredibly complicated. With mixed messages in the media, studies that contradict one another and the bias of the food industry, it might feel overwhelming and difficult to achieve a healthy and balanced lifestyle. But it doesn’t have to be. In the following article, I’ll walk you through how to make lifestyle changes that are attainable for you. By doing so, you’ll be able to understand the difference between a diet and a lifestyle; you’ll have questions to ask yourself if weight loss and sustainable weight management interest you; and you will be able to identify where the focus should be moving forward in order to ditch the all-or-nothing mentality and instead concentrate on having a healthy lifestyle.

Diet vs. lifestyle: What’s the difference?

The all-or-nothing mentality that is typically found within the fire community is a barrier when it comes to nutrition. Having an “eat this, not that” approach tends to set many people up for failure by providing unrealistic quick fixes instead of long-term solutions. If you break the rigid restrictions over time (in social settings, for example), weight gain usually occurs, and it can do so quickly. Hence, quick fixes are temporary and often perpetuate a constant cycle of “yo-yo dieting” instead of creating long-term changes that see health benefits. When assessing a game plan, it’s important to recognize the differences between a diet and lifestyle.

Dieting has become a term associated with short-term dietary changes, often involving restriction whether it’s calories, nutrients and/or food groups. Goals tend to be focused on weight loss or muscle gain. Over time, dieting—especially fad dieting (diets with rigid restrictions, unrealistic claims and promises)—just doesn’t work.

In contrast to dieting, creating a lifestyle involves making feasible changes that you can commit to long-term. While goals can vary, you most likely turn to lifestyle changes to improve your general health, have a specific health concern you want to address or are aiming for weight loss, muscle gain, healthy X lab value, etc. It could also incorporate behavioral approaches, such as mindful eating (being in tune to your hunger and fullness cues) and portion control. When you find a healthy lifestyle that works for you, focusing on consistency is key.

Questions to ask

When searching for the best dietary approaches, in addition to seeking help from a healthcare or nutrition professional, ask yourself the following questions:

Is it healthy? You can be a vegetarian and only eat pasta and peanut butter or be on the ketogenic diet and only eat meat and cheese. Like with anything, there’s a right way and a wrong way to incorporate positive changes. It’s important to ask if your diet is nutritionally sound—are you getting a balance of nutrients within your diet to support you mentally and physically? A potential drawback of a diet is lack of nutrients and energy; so, the best way to approach lifestyle changes is to concentrate on a balanced and adequate diet via a variety of quality whole foods.

How do you feel? Being in tune with how you feel while making dietary changes is crucial for your health. Assess your energy levels throughout the day and after physical activity to make sure you’re adequately fueled. Check in with your mindset. If you’re irritable, hungry often, or miserable, it’s important to reevaluate these changes.

Can you stick with it long term? This is the most important question to ask. Be honest with yourself and ask if your new changes are realistic. If they’re not realistic, they won’t last, can cause further frustration, and can do more damage than good.

Lifestyle checklist

There is a sea of dietary preferences and lifestyles to choose from, from the Mediterranean Diet to Paleo, from Intermittent Fasting to Keto and more. But they all have commonalities—from vegetables to fruits to quality protein to various healthy fats. The trend here is focusing on whole quality foods in their most natural state. Use this checklist to help you choose a lifestyle that is easy, individualized and attainable for you:

  • Remember that nutrition is individualized—what works for one person might not work for another
  • Set realistic goals—from feasible changes to attainable outcomes (for example, weight loss, muscle gain, etc.)
  • Incorporate mostly whole food ingredients and minimize processed foods
  • Know what’s in your food (nutrition labels), how it is prepared and where it comes from (source impacts quality). For further reading on a simplified approach to nutrition, please refer to “Firefighter Nutrition: Understanding Nutrition Labels” at 
  • Incorporate behavioral approaches such as mindful eating and portion control if needed
  • Aim for consistency and balance

Invest in your health

It’s clear that the food we eat has an impact on our health, and because it’s one thing that we can control (when there are so many that we can’t), it’s not to be undervalued. If you can take away one key point from this article, let it be that firefighter health starts in the kitchen. Investing in your health and making healthy lifestyle changes are the best things you can do for you (both on and off shift), your family and the community you serve. If you want to make positive changes that stick, you need to work on shifting the culture within the fire community by ditching the all-or-nothing mentality, finding what works for you and staying consistent. Where are you going to start?

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