Nutrition

 

In the world of professional health and athletics there exists a group of outliers known only as the “Special Population”; no these are not super heroes, nor are they the brave participants of the Special Olympics. According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) this title is reserved for youths, seniors, pregnant women, and the obese. In short this group encompasses those who need specific consideration where nutrition, strength, and conditioning are concerned because of some “condition” that makes them different from the pack.

I submit that firefighters are, in fact, part of this Special Population and as such require nutritional, physical, and emotional strategies tailored to suit their needs. As firefighters, we are subject to the chronic stress of anticipation; sleep interruption, and environmental toxins, all of which are present 24 hours a day during our shifts even if we don’t run any calls. Add to that chronic stress a hand full of critical incidents, where the stress can be so acute it makes lasting changes to your brain chemistry, and you will find a population with some very “special” needs. This page is dedicated to helping you develop a nutritional strategy that meets those needs.

The number one health risk faced by firefighters is heart disease and I feel it is important to start with a diet designed around minimizing that risk. The current medical literature consistently associates both insulin resistance and systemic inflammation with the disease processes of diabetes and heart disease. Insulin is the hormone that pulls sugar from the blood into the cells for burning and insulin resistance is what occurs when the cell’s insulin receptors become desensitized from chronic overexposure. Systemic inflammation is just that, inflammation of every cell in the body as an immune response to food toxins and a host of other factors. Both conditions are inherent to the Standard American Diet (SAD) and are exacerbated by the firefighter’s “lifestyle”; an unfortunate combination of the chronic and acute stressors mentioned above coupled with the stressors of everyday life. What I propose is a diet that focuses on controlling insulin resistance and systemic inflammation.

The goal of “controlling “ insulin resistance and inflammation through diet is not a new one and it can be achieved in several different ways. There are very healthy, solid performers around the world that eat a wide variety of diets with every imaginable macronutrient (carbohydrate, protein, fat) ratio. Unfortunately each of them has a representative who has written a book loaded with “science” supporting their view, making it almost impossible to discern the correct path. The question of which is best for the firefighter athlete is what I am writing about though, and that answer is going to be different because we are, after all, a Special Population. The main thrust of this diet is to control and reverse insulin resistance by keeping blood sugar low <140mg/dl; to control and reverse systemic inflammation by removing toxic and allergenic foods; and to do that in a manner that can be sustained for the rest of your life.

The leading cause of failed dieting is a lack of compliance, period… Granted some diets are easier to stick to than others but in the end it comes down to the individual’s desire to effect change in their life. It has been my experience that an “individual’s desire to change” can be greatly influenced by a  “wake-up call”, like a heart attack or a diagnosis of pre-diabetes; which is why I recommend getting some blood work done to uncover and track any issues. Because we humans are generally unwilling to change in the face of inconvenience I will present the nutrition guidelines in a hierarchal ratio of commitment to effectiveness starting with the low hanging fruit:

Food Quality

The very first thing that needs to be addressed in pursuit of our new goal is the quality of the food and drink that you ingest. To understand what good quality food is, it helps to look back in time to a place in history where heart disease and diabetes was not the number one killer. A place where people ate the foods available to them and suffered little to no ill consequence beyond occasional food poisoning. Surprisingly that place is time is only a few hundred years ago. As little as 60 years ago the instance of heart disease in this country was a fraction of what it is today despite incredible advances in healthcare. I like to call this look back in time our “ancestral filter”, if your ancestors didn’t have access to it don’t eat it. After all, they thrived on that diet for millions of years without a hint of the disease we see today. The sheer number of “novel” foods on the market is staggering and it is becoming very difficult to find real whole foods; this is where the ancestral filter comes in to play. Do you know what it’s made of? Could you eat each of the ingredients individually?  Do you know where it came from? Can you produce it at home given fire and sharp rocks? Did it exist as food prior to the industrial revolution? If it is meat do you know what the animal was eating prior to landing on your plate? If the answer is “NO” to any of those questions you should cut it from your diet. Modern processed foods are designed to give you the most rewarding sensation possible and often that means they are loaded with refined carbohydrate and sodium. Ingestion of that refined carbohydrate is exactly what we need to reduce in order to keep blood sugar low and correct insulin resistance. On the inflammation front, sugar doesn’t help at all but modern food is almost totally to blame; from skewed fatty acid ratios to anti-nutrients in genetically modified grains, our commercial food supply is wrought with peril. Real food that passes through the ancestral filter tends not to cause inflammation and in some cases may be anti-inflammatory. I find that eating quality lean protein, fat, and some dense carbohydrate in every meal including breakfast, tends to naturally set me on the track to performance.

Conventional Food vs. Organic Food:

From Wikipedia: “Organic foods are produced according to certain production standards, meaning they are grown without the use of conventional pesticides, artificial fertilizers, human waste, or sewage sludge, and that they were processed without ionizing radiation or food additives.”

Organic is not required unless you are intent on reducing the toxins and allergens in your food. It does taste better and is better for you. If you have the means and access to organic, then do it. Keep in mind, just because it is organic doesn’t mean it’s good for you; an organic gluten-free donut is still a donut. Also bear in mind that the USDA hires 3rd party inspectors to “certify” organic crops in other countries, like China, and there is no way to verify any of it.

Conventional Meat vs. Organic Meat vs. Grass-Fed Meat:

Conventional meat is raised with the routine use of antibiotics and growth hormones. They are fed a diet of grains and are farmed like any other crop.  Organic meat is raised without the use of antibiotics and growth hormones, but is still fed an organic diet of grains and is also farmed. Grass-Fed/Free-Range/Wild means exactly what it says. No antibiotics or growth hormones. They eat what they were meant to eat (cows-grass, fish-other fish or sea life, chicken-bugs) and they are not caged. Again, these are personal choices. If you can afford GF/FR/W, then do it. The quality of our food is largely determined by the quality of the food that animal ate or with fruits and veggies, the quality of the growing conditions.

 

Following is a more detailed description of the food categories you’re allowed to eat.

  • All the Meat you want: Any beef (ground beef, steak), pork (chops, ham), lamb, duck, chicken, turkey, eggs, fish, seafood (clams, scallops, etc). Fresh or frozen. Grass-fed and finished is best, but if it is unavailable go with lean cuts and add some fat from grass-fed Kerrygold Butter.

  • Plenty of Veggies: Any fresh or frozen veggies (except potato, corn, and beans) the more colors the better.

  • Supplement with Nuts/Seeds: Any nuts/seeds (except peanuts), raw or lightly roasted and unsalted; or any nut butters. Mac nuts rule.

  • Add some other Healthy Fats: Avocados, olive/almond/coconut oil, or flaxseed/grape seed oil, grass-fed Kerrygold butter or Ghee.

  • Some Fruit: Any whole fresh fruit (no juice), but in moderation, stick with dark colored berries when possible.

 

Following is a list of what is off limits if you’re committed to reducing your risk of death and disease.

  • No Sugar or Artificial Sugar: Equal, Splenda, Stevia, agave nectar, pure cane, corn syrup, fructose, molasses, honey, maltodextrin, etc…
  • No Junk FoodCakes, desserts, cookies, candy, chocolate, pastries, chips, crackers, ice cream, snack foods, soda, fruit juice, I cant believe I have to say this but NO KOOL-AID!!

  • No GrainsWheat products, corn products, rice, pasta, bread, oatmeal, cereals, etc.

  • No Legumes/BeansPeanuts, lima beans, kidney beans, black beans etc.

  • No DairyMilk, half and half, yogurt, cheese, etc. Grass-fed Butter and hard cheeses are an exception if they are well tolerated.

When you have dialed in the quality component and are looking for further tweaks, macronutrient ratio is next on the list.

Macronutrient Ratio

Here I am referring to the ratio of carbohydrate, protein, and fat in the diet; usually represented as a percentage in that order, e.g., 40-30-30 indicating 40% carbohydrate, 30% protein, 30% fat, which happens to be the ratio recommended in  Barry Sears’ Zone. In “42 ways to skin the Zone” Robb Wolf dissects the Zone and gives a few ways to tweak it to “your” needs; it’s worth reading and if you are type A enough it can work so I am not going to recreate that wheel. Personally I couldn’t train hard three days a week, work my shift, and recover while zoning. Sticking with the concept of the ancestral filter, a look rearward is in order; research shows that the average range of macronutrient intake for most early humans was likely 22-40% carbohydrate, 19-35% protein, and 28-58% fat. Again, any lasting benefit from the Zone or any other macronutrient breakdown will not be realized without addressing food quality first. As far as a seat of the pants approach to macronutrient ratios I would say, for the average person, a piece of lean protein the size of your palm with every meal and as many dense, multicolored vegetables as you can stack on your plate, dressed with avocado and California olive oil is legit. If you are just getting started I think it is worth going low carb (less than 75g per day) for 30-60 days to reset your system and adapt to fat metabolism; a journal like PaleoTrack or FitDay will give you tools to dial that in. Another way to look at it is to use Mark Sisson’s Carb Curve; eat 0.7-1 gram of protein per pound on lean body mass, carbs per the picture below , and fill in the rest with healthy fat.

 

Once you start feeling better and have hit a body composition that you are happy with start adding some more carbs in post workout to support your exercise level, if you start waking up hungry or feeling foggy in the head you are probably over doing the sugar. Personally I get fat around the middle if I eat too much fruit even if it is peri-workout. Recently I have been having success with eating a sweet potato for every training session in a day plus the carbs I get from my normal dense veggie intake and that’s it; at 205lbs I figure it at about 120-130g on a one session day and 50-75g if I don’t train at all. There is a carb vacuum that gets overlooked a lot and that is the added stress of this job, the brain burns glucose and chronic stressors keep our adrenal glands firing in an effort to feed the brain. This blood glucose usage will make you hungry just like a carb crash so, once you are fat adapted, it is important that you adjust your eating to your stress levels and maintain a fairly level blood sugar when you’re mentally tapped. Eating a very low carbohydrate diet will actually cause insulin resistance in an effort to conserve what glucose is available. This process is totally natural and is no big deal unless you are overstressed mentally and or physically. If food quality and macronutrient ratios are dialed in but your performance and or body composition leaves you wanting, its time to address quantity or total calories…

Food Quantity

In the raw tonnage category I like the Zone or one of the food journal listed above; it gives you a measurable way to gauge the amount of food you are eating and apply necessary changes to achieve results. The downside is that it is time consuming and requires a level of neurosis most people find disconcerting. I also have faith in John Romaniello’s formula for basal metabolic intake:

Current Body Fat Caloric Intake
6%-12% 17Kcal per pound of LBM
12%-15% 16Kcal per pound of LBM
15.1%-19% 15Kcal per pound of LBM
19.1%-22% 14Kcal per pound of LBM
22.1% or above 13Kcal per pound of LBM

 

If you want to gain weight add 600-1000 calories of quality food a day and if you want to lose weight cut 300-600 calories a day. Seems simple right? Of course all of this works best if you stick to the quality and ratio guidelines.

B Shift Breakdown:

The best nutritional strategy for firefighters athletes

  • The one that keeps you lean, happy, and un-inflamed
  • Use the above information and tweak it for you

 

In Summary; it is difficult to assign one nutritional strategy to everyone but I can say without a doubt that Americans eat way too much refined processed food and it is killing us. The performance tweaks that athletes are looking for are very individual and are best achieved through eating real food vs. supplements and powders. Patience, persistence, self-awareness, and hard work are the only things that work long term. The health issues related to stress and sleep deprivation are significant; they will also completely derail the train to washboard abb town.

 

 

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