CrossFit 4 Fire: Living the 80/20 Rule

By Ed Hadfield

Almost nothing in this world is as good as firehouse chow. The fire service has some of the finest cooks in the world. In fact, people like Fire Captain Eddie Sell of the Long Beach (CA) Fire Department and many others have been highlighted on television programs and cooking competitions as a result of their culinary expertise. As a result, we often find ourselves enjoying a great firehouse meal to the point of gluttony. Let’s face it: we paid for it, it tastes good, and I’ll be damned if I let the oncoming shift eat the leftovers!

However, the problem firefighters face is how to figure out the proper number of calories, breakdown of fats, protein, and carbs to accomplish our fitness and conditioning goals to be a fire service athlete? First, my opinion is to remove the word “diet” from your vocabulary. The word “diet” should never pass through your lips. When discussing nutrition with family, friends, and others, replace the word “diet” with nutrition, meal planning, or eating behaviors. Why? Diet is something we do to accomplish a short-term goal such as losing weight, which is rarely long lasting. Second, we don’t want to lose weight; we want to lose fat! Nutrition, meal planning, or eating behaviors are things we do to increase our general health and allow us to perform at a higher level in our profession. I am much more concerned about lifetime health and career longevity than I am about a six-pack summertime abs program.

Many nutritional experts have reported on the mainstream misinformation related to nutrition. Mark Sisson discussed this in his bestselling book, Primal Blueprint. He highlighted how most popular daily diets look at overall calories as the main factor in weight loss and weight gain. The age-old conservation of energy conventional wisdom says that “a calorie is a calorie.” From there, most diet gurus generally prescribe some formulaic, one-size-fits-all breakdown of fats, protein, and carbs. A classically trained registered dietician will tell you that protein should be around 10-15 percent of calories, carbs should be 60 percent (and mostly from whole grains), and fat under 30 percent. This macronutrient breakdown stays the same regardless of how much weight you need to lose or what other goals you might have. But it’s not that simple. All calories are not the same, and applying this type of belief to your nutrition can prove deadly.

The human body is an amazing processing machine with an engine that requires more than just fuel (carbs) to run efficiently. It uses these macronutrients for a variety of different functions, some of which are structural and some of which are simply to provide energy, immediately or in the near future. Moreover, with regard to energy conservation or expenditure, the body acts as both an efficient fuel storage depot as well as a potent generator of energy, depending largely on the hormonal signals it receives. It will store glycogen and/or fat, and it will build muscle. Just as easily, it will tear them all down and use them for fuel, based on input from you, what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, and what you’re doing before or after you eat.

This is all fine and dandy until you enter the fire service or have young kids at home. Take the typical fire service day, for instance. It’s random. Our schedule is based on work projects, calls, equipment needs and so forth, so we cannot dial in our meal planning like a professional athlete would. However, we are expected to perform at a moment’s notice at the same level as a professional athlete; therefore, we need to consider how we properly provide the nutrition and macronutrients into our system to run the internal engine just like a professional athlete.

So the overall goal is to develop a systematic approach to meal planning and nutrition that will give us the macronutrients our bodies need while allowing for the many variables in life or at work. Here is the great news about the whole aspect of using the 80/20 rule: Giving yourself the opportunity to fall off the wagon or cheat once or twice a week won’t have the immediate disastrous effect that you might imagine as long as you can keep your average intake under control and understand how the various macronutrients function over time.

This type of eating behavior would allow three specific meals in a seven-day period where you could eat something not normally in your meal planning. This type of eating behavior and meal planning is actually quite easy as long as we eat from the basic meal-planning list we establish as the foundation of our nutrition and try to avoid that other list of grain-laden, sugary, high fructose corn syrups or processed and otherwise unhealthy foods. Given the timing or calls, the work projects, the potential for sleep deprivation, and so forth, we also want to allow for the occasional late-night pizza blow-out; a preplanned (or accidental) intermittent fast; an over-the-top workout; or even a week of recovery because of a number of overtime shifts or late night runs.

Here are a few things to consider when establishing a meal-planning guide and changing your eating behaviors to create a healthier and higher performing lifestyle.

1)   80 percent of your fitness, conditioning, endurance and mobility will be determined by your nutrition. Yes, exercise is also important to fitness and conditioning as well and is especially important with regard to recovery, but most of your results will come from how and what you eat. We must absolutely understand that the base of our pyramid is nutrition. Nutrition drives the engine that enables us to perform. Sure, there are a few freaks in this world who can get by for a period of time on poor eating choices; however, to sustain longevity in your career, you need to take care of the engine and the chassis.  

2)   Lean Body Mass (LBM) is the key to life. Fitness and conditioning experts agree that lean mass (muscle and all the rest of you that is not fat) is directly correlated with career longevity, better overall health, and a higher degree of fireground performance. Let’s face it, if you are obese and unconditioned you are not going to perform at the level you could if you achieve a higher degree of lean body mass. To develop a higher degree of lean body mass, don’t strive to “lose weight.” You are better off striving to lose only fat and to build or maintain muscle. Since other organs tend to function at a level that correlates to muscle mass, the more muscle you maintain, the greater the degree of overall health.

3)   Excess body fat is bad. Not only is the fire service community now becoming concerned about the epidemic of obesity within the fire service, but the medical community is concerned about obesity because it raises the risk of suffering a number of significant health problems. Several medical problems are associated with an unhealthy body composition.

·         Studies show that being significantly overweight increases your risk of nearly every disease, including a recent study showing a direct correlation from obesity to Alzheimer’s.

·         The biggest concern as it relates to the epidemic of obesity facing the American fire service is that of Metabolic Syndrome. Metabolic Syndrome is diagnosed when someone has three or more of the following risk factors. (1) Waist circumference over 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women, (2) Serum triglycerides of 150 mg/dL or higher, (3) High-density lipoproteins (HDL) levels below 40 mg/dL in men or 50 mg/dL in women, (4) Blood pressure over 130/85 mm Hg, and (5) Fasting glucose of more than 100 mg/dL.

4)   Excess insulin is bad. We’ve written about it here a lot. Chronic excess insulin may be even worse than excess sugar. The excess insulin in the system is a direct derivative of the type of carbohydrates we ingest and how our body metabolizes those particular carbohydrates. Science has concluded that all animals produce insulin, but in any species, those that produce less insulin live longer than those who produce a lot. As reported by Gary Taubes, “Peter Havel and his collaborators at U.C. Davis and Vanderbilt looked at the metabolic effect of the fructose component of sugar, while one of them one also looked at the effect of sugar itself in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). In the experiment, rhesus monkeys were fed their usual monkey chow diet supplemented by a daily 300-calorie ration of fructose-sweetened water. After a year, every last one of the 29 monkeys had developed insulin resistance and many features of metabolic syndrome, including central obesity, dyslipidemia, and inflammation.” Four of the monkeys progressed to Type-2 diabetes. Worth noting is that the monkeys apparently drank all the fructose-sweetened drinks they were given, but they adjusted for the 300 additional calories by cutting back significantly on the chow. All in all, they averaged only 26 calories per day more with the fructose than they did without it. This suggests that the negative aftereffects observed over the course of the year were indeed caused by the fructose itself and not an increased intake of total calories, unless we’re willing to accept that increasing calories by just a couple a dozen a day is sufficient to do some very bad things to monkeys and do them relatively quickly.

5)   Increase your protein. If there is ample glycogen or stored glucose and the body is getting the rest of its energy efficiently from fats, protein will become the foundation of maintaining lean body mass and will always go first toward repair or building cells or enzymes. In that context, it hardly seems fair to assign it a “burn rate” of four calories per gram. If you are moderately active and consider yourself a fire service athlete, you need as much as one gram of protein per pound of lean mass. That’s at a minimum, but it’s on a daily average. So a 200-lb moderately active firefighter who has 25 percent body fat (and thus) has 175-lb of lean body mass needs 175 grams of protein on average per day (175 × 1). If he gets 60 percent or 80 percent some days and 110 percent on others, he’ll still be in a healthy average range. And even if he exceeds the 110 percent, it’s no problem if he’s eating low carb because the excess protein will convert to glucose, which will reduce his effective carbohydrate needs. At four calories per gram, that’s between 550 and 700 calories per day in protein. It’s not that much for a moderately active fire service athlete. The key to the protein uptake is to portion it through the day to allow the branch chain amino acids to enter the system at a slow rate through the day to maximize the cellular intake without having an insulin dump or surge.

6)   Carbohydrates drive insulin; insulin drives fat. The idea is to limit your carbs to a moderate amount, which will allow you to provide glucose for the brain and for some reasonable amount of anaerobic exercise, preferably before and after your Workout of the Day. Ideally, most of your daily energy to come from dietary or stored fats. A reasonable rule of thumb is that 150-175 grams of carbohydrate per day is plenty to keep you out of ketosis [briefly describe] but away from storing the excess fat if you are the least bit active. Don’t forget that your body can make up to 200 grams of glycogen from fats and protein, which you ingest as part of our daily nutrition. Yet, if you are looking to lose body fat and increase your lean body mass, keeping carbs to under 100 grams per day will help immensely in lowering insulin and taking fat out of storage. However, if you are working longer, have busier shifts, or have increased the tempo and volume of your fire service fitness and conditioning program, you would add more carbs (say, 100 per day extra for every extra hour you train hard). It becomes a matter of doing the math and experimenting with what seems to work best with you. Ironically, it’s tough to exceed 100 grams of carbs even if you eat tons of colorful vegetables, as long as you eat like Fred Flintstone and consume no grains, no sugars, high fructose corn syrups, and few starchy vegetables (potatoes, yams, beets, legumes, etc). Even if you eat a boatload of vegetables and a fair amount of fruit, you’ll be hard pressed to exceed 175 grams of carbs on average per day. At four calories per gram, that’s only 700 calories per day. Add that in to the protein above and our sample firefighter is barely at 1,500 calories on the high end. So where does the rest of the fuel come from?

7)   Fats…learn to love them. They are the fuel of choice and should become the balance of your meal planning and nutrition for the fire service athlete. According to Mark Sisson, “Fats have little or no impact on insulin and, as a result, promote the burning of both dietary and stored (adipose) fat as fuel.” Feel like you need more fuel and you’ve reached your ideal levels of both carbs and proteins? Go for the fats. Nuts, avocados, coconut, eggs, butter, olive oil, fish, chicken, lamb, beef. All are a good source of fat and will provide you with the energy source your body is designed to utilize. One hundred grams of fats per day would add only 900 calories to your daily average consumption of calories, putting you around 2,300 calories a day. Even if the average firefighter at 200 lb with 175 lb of lean body mass were to ingest between 2,300-2,600 calories per day over a few weeks, as long as he pays attention to protein and carbs, his body composition will begin to shift to lower body fat and more desirable lean mass.

Remember that 80 percent of body composition is determined by diet. The key is to recognize what we are eating and how our body processes that food source. Anytime we are eating excessive consumption of high-glycemic carbohydrates which include rice, bread, candy, potato, sweets, sodas, processed carbohydrates, and even artificial sweeteners, the body’s natural reaction is to increases insulin levels in the blood stream as a result of the glycemic index in the food we ate, which will result in high fat storage and an increase in overall fat mass on the body, leading to the potential of metabolic syndrome and a host of other diseases.

The key to living the 80/20 rule of meal planning and overall nutrition is to work within the guidelines stated above. Just as in the firehouse, guidelines give you parameters to work within, if you use the following as an example and you have three full meals a day and two snacks in the day, that’s 21 full meals and 14 snacks in a seven-day period. If you are living in the 80/20 rule, you would give yourself approximately three meals and two snacks where you could eat outside the normal meal plan. This should not be an excuse to see how many donuts you can eat in one sitting. It’s just a guideline to step outside the normal eating behaviors–especially given that you are working overtime and the cook is famous for his baked ziti!


Mark Sisson. Primal Blueprint. Primal Nutrition Publishing. 2009.

Gary Taubes. Good Calories, Bad Calories.  Knopf Publishing. 2007.

Ed Hafield: CrossFit 4 FireEDWARD HADFIELD has more than 25 years of fire service experience and serves as a division chief. He is a frequent speaker on leadership, sharing his experiences within the fire service, and also with corporate and civic leaders throughout the United States. He created and teaches company officer development programs and is a specialist in truck company operations, firefighter safety and survivability, and mission-focused command tactics. He was the 2004 California Training Officer of the Year. He has developed state and regional truck company academies in California, Washington, and Oregon.