Health & Wellness: Gut Health and Its Importance in the Firefighter’s Lifestyle

June 5, 2023
Dana Harrison boils down to the basics of how members can evolve their diet so that their digestive system can work to improve their overall health.

Gut health. You might have heard about it. It might even seem as though everyone is talking about it. It’s become a very important topic within the health and wellness industry over the past couple of years.

The fact is, we all have good reason to be talking about gut health—and improving it. As Hippocrates said, “All disease begins in the gut.” (The gut also is known as the digestive system and gastrointestinal system.)

Why is it important?

The gut microbiome is defined as the collective genomes of the microbes that live inside of and on the human body. It’s a big regulator in our overall health. It affects functions of the immune system (about 70 percent of the immune system is in the gut), brain chemistry and health (the gut is called the second brain), hormone health and more. The gut microbiome is beyond underrated, particularly given the idea that food can be/is medicine.

Simply put, when one of the aforementioned systems isn’t working, the problem might stem from the gut. That’s why diving into how to support one’s gut health is key when it comes to general healing, disease prevention, optimal health and longevity.

So, the bottom line is that gut health is directly connected to all of our overall health.

Can food and lifestyle improve it?

Diet, exercise, stress and sleep have big effects in regard to improving or harming the gut. When looking at food, the idea is to incorporate more foods that promote beneficial gut health and to decrease or avoid foods that damage or contribute to an imbalanced gut. (This topic is explored greatly in my Gut Health 101 Wellness Workshop. Go to

Food’s effect on gut health

Food is arguably the most important variable (in other words, factor that you can change) that can affect a person’s gut health. This is why “You are what you eat”—including what was consumed by what you eat—is a phrase that I continually repeat when I visit firehouses to help members with their health and wellness efforts.

Although people often think about what they eat on a surface level, many don’t dissect the idea of the environment and lifestyle that food underwent. For instance, the food that you eat was in contact with different environments (e.g., growing conditions, pathogens, bacteria, diet of animals, etc.), which in turn affects us and our health.

Changing your diet behaviors to affect the gut in a positive way can improve total body wellness. Incorporating a diet that is gut-friendly and anti-inflammatory not only can be preventative for some health conditions, but it also can have the capability to heal or reverse chronic disease. The goal is to prioritize eating nutrient-dense foods while reducing nutrient-poor foods. To do this:

  • Maximize: variety of fruits and vegetables; quality protein (e.g., pasture-raised, antibiotic-free, wild caught); nuts and seeds; probiotic-rich foods (e.g., fermented foods, such as yogurt, kimchi and sauerkraut, or a probiotic supplement with a variety of strains); quality anti-inflammatory cooking oils (e.g., avocado and extra virgin olive oil)
  • Minimize: inflammatory oils (e.g., processed vegetable oils, human-made oils); processed foods; added sugar (artificial included); individualized food sensitivities.

Note: Even if you eat the most healthful diet, if you don’t absorb nutrients properly, you won’t be as healthy as you could be.

A thriving gut from food

I recommend that you follow the four Rs:

  • Remove negative or harmful foods, such as sugar and inflammatory seed oils
  • Replace what’s missing or needed from a nutrient perspective
  • Reinoculate, which means add foods that promote good gut health and bacteria (prebiotics and probiotics)
  • Repair the lining of the gut

At the firehouse and at home

I believe in eating for health and enjoyment. I also teach about the quality and calories of food. They both are important, and denying this is a disservice. That said, I teach in a way by which nutrients take the front seat.

This leads to the term healthified, or adapt a particular dish, diet, etc., to improve its health value, therefore making it healthful.

When a fire department recently participated in a healthifying cooking workshop, members chose the dish, and I came up with a recipe. Some firefighters questioned what was healthful about a certain recipe.

For example, chicken parmesan is a classic in life and at the firehouse. However, it often is made with convenience options that add loads of artificial ingredients and is fried in inflammatory oils, etc. To healthify chicken parm for the station, I replaced flavored breadcrumbs (more than 20 additives, preservatives, sugars and artificial flavors) with flavoring my own breadcrumbs, by buying unflavored breadcrumbs or almond flour and adding flavors via dried spices. I used antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken. The sauce included olive oil and omitted added sugars. Real parmesan cheese and real mozzarella cheese was used, because shredded cheese contains caking and preservative ingredients. Avocado oil was used instead of peanut or soybean oil (anti-inflammatory oil rather than inflammatory oil).

The recipe was a hit with the members, and those simple ingredient swaps (often less expensive than their alternatives) were key to healthifying the recipe. The meal was enjoyed without the added sugars, preservatives and artificial ingredients and was a quality meal that allowed firefighters to eat for enjoyment while still including their health in the equation.

You can get a little more comprehensive and look at nutrients (micro and macro). See “How to Read a Nutrition Label”.

Start small, be consistent

Ultimately, approaching nutrition, health and wellness changes is up to you. This is why it’s important to tailor your own approach that’s individualized to you and that’s something that you’ll be consistent with. The most important focus should be on making gut health-promoting dietary choices that work for you and can fit into your diet and lifestyle.

Tune into your body, listen to it, and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Keep going, one step at a time. Small steps over time truly add up and can affect long-term and sustainable changes for the better both on and off shift, now and past retirement.

About the Author

Dana Harrison

Dana Harrison, MS, is a nutritionist and educator who is based in Massachusetts. She received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Vassar College and a master’s degree in nutrition science (community nutrition concentration) from University of Massachusetts Amherst. Harrison is the founder of The Cultural Shift Method, which is a nutrition education program that makes nutrition, health and wellness easy, individualized and attainable. She presents simple, realistic, sustainable and dynamic plans for positive health and wellness behaviors, which allow for changes to occur on a cultural level. For more information, visit or contact her at [email protected].

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