Fuelling firefighter fitness: Top tips on hydration and nutrition
Following on from last month’s article on physical fitness, FIRE’s Health & Fitness Correspondent Lorna King explores optimum sources of hydration and nutrition for firefighters
Physical fitness is important, but it is only one step on the road to a healthy body and mind. Working in a physically demanding job where optimum health and fitness protects not only yourself, but your colleagues and your community too, requires the right fuel to keep your energy up and your mind alert, often for long periods of time.
Let us start with what we all know is a crucial element of a firefighter’s job: keeping well hydrated. Extreme temperatures, thick, heavy workwear and breathing apparatus are a recipe for extreme dehydration, and if you are even mildly dehydrated going into a fire incident, there is little hope of turning that around while engaged in the fight. It is essential that keeping well hydrated before, during and after your shift becomes an engrained habit. The risks of dehydration for firefighters are real and possibly life-threatening. Here are some of the reasons why:
Dehydration – the risks:
- Mild dehydration impairs mental capacity for concentration, lowers mood and general attitude, causes confusion, contributes to poor decision making and can negatively affect memory and judgement.
- Becoming dehydrated by as little as two per cent from the recommended level can contribute to impaired performance in terms of aerobic work capacity, strength and endurance.
- Mild dehydration occurs before the feeling of thirst becomes apparent.
- More severe levels of dehydration lead to a greater risk of heart attack or stroke. Water thins the blood and keeps it moving easily around the body. Dehydration clogs the veins and arteries.
Tips for keeping well hydrated:
- When you first wake up, drink a glass of water before anything else.
- Aim to drink between six to eight large glasses of water every day.
- Caffeine is dehydrating. Drink water just before or after your usual tea and coffee.
- Carry your own water bottle with you whenever possible and top up regularly.
- Drink water before, during and after exercise.
- Check the colour of your urine – it should be a pale, straw-like colour. Any darker indicates dehydration.
- If you exercise or are on a fire incident for more than an hour, drink a sports drink with electrolytes in, as well as water, to replace the lost salts and minerals from excessive sweating.
In a study carried out by Kent Fire and Rescue Service and Canterbury Christ Church University in 2013, four firefighters’ hydration levels were measured before and after two staged fire incidents throughout the day. Two of the participants were severely dehydrated before the experiment began, and the other two were well hydrated. Throughout the day they all drank between 2-2.5 litres of water and a sports drink, but at the end of the day, all their hydration levels were the same as before the event. The excess heat and activity of an incident will require good levels of hydration before the event to maintain those levels throughout.
Unlike an athlete preparing for a competition, firefighters do not have any warning of a fire incident. You are expected to perform at a moment’s notice and engage in strenuous activity. It is too late to pre-hydrate when the alarm sounds.
The internet has given us the means to access unlimited advice and guidance about healthy eating, especially at this time of year when resolutions prompt most of us to move more and eat better. It would be impossible to summarise all the suitable nutritional advice in one article, so I have chosen to specifically target a diet that is proven to be kinder to our bodies and to our planet. I will be exploring the benefits of a vegetarian and plant-based diet and busting the common myth that a meat-free diet provides less energy and leaves you feeling hungry.
I am not about to preach that we should all be vegan. I only hope to inspire discussion and spark curiosity. Last year I lived on a vegan diet for six months to see how it changed my outlook on food and exercise. I learned many lessons and reaped noticeable rewards for my health that have influenced my food choices today. With this article I hope to introduce at least one person to an alternative approach to food choices that will inspire a healthier attitude to doing what we all love to do – eat good food!
The job of a firefighter is one of protection and preservation of life, so I am confident that the protection and preservation of our planet is important to most firefighters. It is a sad fact that global warming is causing lasting damage to our environment. Of the five main causes of global warming listed on the European Union Commission website, three of them are linked to livestock farming:
- Cutting down forests (deforestation). Trees help to regulate the climate by absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. When they are cut down, that beneficial effect is lost and the carbon stored in the trees is released into the atmosphere, adding to the greenhouse effect. Forests are being increasingly cleared to grow crops to feed livestock.
- Increasing livestock farming. Cows and sheep produce large amounts of methane when they digest their food. Methane is a greenhouse gas responsible for 17 per cent of manmade global warming.
- Fertilisers containing nitrogen produce nitrous oxide emissions (another greenhouse gas) and are used on crops to feed livestock.
Sustainability is also a problem. People are living and eating longer. In a report published in 2017, the United Nations predicted that the world population will rise from the current 7.6 billion to 9.8 billion by 2050. It is estimated that 50-70 per cent more food will need to be produced in order to support such an increase. Growing crops to feed people rather than animals uses less land and water and will improve global food security.
If the thought of giving up meat altogether is too difficult, consider only buying local produce to reduce your carbon footprint. The time is now to make small positive changes for the long-term sustainability of our food production.
Another reason for considering eating less meat is your health. Many studies suggest that vegetarians are at lower risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity and certain cancers than people who eat meat.
A study under the European Prospective Investigation of Cancer (EPIC) at the University of Oxford called Diet, nutrition, and cancer risk: what do we know and what is the way forward? found that there are striking positive correlations between eating meat and colorectal cancer rates. In 2015 IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) classified processed meat as carcinogenic to humans and unprocessed red meat as probably carcinogenic... reporting an increase in risk of 17 per cent for each daily 50g increment in consumption of processed meat and 18 per cent for each 100g increment in consumption of red meat. The conclusions included the following statement: fruits and vegetables are not clearly linked to cancer risk, although very low intakes might increase the risk for aerodigestive and some other cancers.
If the threat of harm to the environment and health are enough to interest you in a healthy low-meat or meat-free diet, how can you be sure about getting enough nutrients and energy from your food for the demands of your job? Anita Bean (BSc RNutr) is a registered nutritionist, a respected health journalist and a former natural bodybuilder. Anita is a life-long vegetarian and has written a book called The Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook which includes more than 100 recipes for active living. The book includes a thorough and informative 47-page introduction, detailing all the nutritional benefits of living a physically active, meat-free lifestyle.
In her book, Anita looks at busting some of the common vegetarian myths:
- Vegetarians do not get enough protein. Protein is largely associated with meat, but there are many other foods that are excellent sources of protein and provide much more variety to meals, including milk (dairy and non-dairy), yogurt, cheese, beans, lentils, soya foods, nuts, seeds and grains.
- A vegetarian diet will lack iron. The main cause of iron deficiency is lack of effective absorption, not lack of red meat. Iron needs vitamin C to be absorbed into the body, which is found in fresh fruits and vegetables. Iron is found in beans, lentils, leafy green veg, nuts and seeds.
- You will have less energy. Energy does not come from meat, it comes from protein and carbohydrates. If you are not getting enough in your diet, your recovery rate after exercise will be slower and your muscles will not repair themselves effectively.
- Vegetarian diets leave you feeling hungry. Fibre rich foods keep you feeling full for longer and are essential for digestion and gastrointestinal health. Fibre rich foods include fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. The more natural and unprocessed the food is, the more fibre it will contain.
A healthy nutrition plan should include the right balance of the four primary food groups: fats, protein, carbohydrates and fibre. The most effective and absorbable examples of all of these are found in an abundance of fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, soya foods, nuts, seeds and dairy or fortified non-dairy products. The recipe below from Anita’s book is packed with nutrients and ideal for a hard-working body.
There are an increasing number of world class athletes and Olympians who live on a vegetarian or vegan diet. For example:
- Dave Scott: Ironman world champion
- Lizzie Armistead: world track and road race cycling champion
- Billy Simmonds: bodybuilder and winner of Mr Natural Universe
- David Smith: Paralympic and world championship cycling gold medallist
- Mike Tyson: former world heavyweight boxing champion.
But what about firefighters? Is there a meat-free trend amongst frontline firefighters? Actually, yes! The People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have published an article promoting firefighters from around the world who thrive on a vegan diet. Meet two of them:
Chris Foott is a firefighter from Manchester. Shortly after deciding to go vegan to improve his health, Foott learned about the environmental and ethical issues surrounding the factory-farming industry and has since become a vegan activist. Since switching to plant-based eating, his sinuses feel clearer, he has stopped feeling bloated and he has lost body fat.
Rip Esselstyn is from Texas, USA. He is a life-long vegan who has competed in world-class triathlons and is a national swimming champion. Rip continues to promote the healthy vegan lifestyle within the US Fire Department and beyond.
Rip is the author of The Engine 2 Diet and Plant Strong and he is featured in the documentary, Game Changers, a revolutionary new film about meat, protein and strength. In an article for bestlifeonline.com Rip wrote: ‘When it comes to nutrition, vegetables are the Olympians of food. The best of them, dark leafy greens, are gold-medal winners containing ridiculous amounts of macro-and micronutrients, phytochemicals, bioflavonoids, antioxidants, vitamins, fibre, protein… the list goes on and on. But you can bring only so many bowls of steamed broccoli into an environment like a firehouse... So, to get the guys onboard my veggie-heavy wagon, I got creative with unique recipes and ingredients, and prepared things like homemade sauces, which are delicious and much easier to prepare than you’d think. They have proved to be so good that now firefighters from other stations stop by regularly to sample our healthy, life-changing cuisine’.
Your diet is a lifestyle choice, not a quick fix to lose weight. Make small positive changes over time to introduce healthier habits:
- Add more fruit and vegetables to your diet
- Choose natural over processed
- Focus on portion control
- Keep healthy snacks in view and hide the biscuit tin
- Always drink plenty of water.
For some meat-free cooking inspiration, I would highly recommend Anita Bean’s previously mentioned The Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook. Additionally, I have found the recipe ideas provided by the talented BOSH creators, Henry Firth and Ian Theasby to be delicious, nutritious and very filling. The recipe suggestion, Breakfast Hash Tacos, is from their latest plant-based cookbook, Speedy BOSH! and is a quick and easy sample of a nutritious meat-free meal. Why not try making this, or Anita’s frittata, for your team at work and see what happens?
The Vegetarian Athletes Cookbook by Anita Bean
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