By Michael Krueger
If you find yourself in the position of needing to drop a few or maybe many pounds, be careful how you do it. With the popularity of TV shows such as “The Biggest Loser,” many people are not content to lose a pound or two per week but want double-digit weight loss–and they want it now.
Recently it was found that the vast majority of these reality show weight loss contestants/victims regain all the weight they lost in short order once the cameras stop rolling. I would guess that this isn’t really a surprise to anyone, but it’s sad nonetheless.
Save the Muscle
Obviously, when losing weight, you want to lose fat–not muscle–and still maintain a full load of glycogen to fuel your physical and mental needs. The challenge is to keep your tank full but run a caloric deficit at the same time. This can be difficult, but as a firefighter who needs to lose some weight, it’s the fine line you must walk. Because of this, it’s important to understand the science behind glucose metabolism and its link to healthy weight loss.
When you work or exercise, the energy you use primarily comes from glycogen that is stored in your muscles. This glycogen doesn’t come from your last meal but rather from the food you have eaten over the previous few days. Once depleted, it takes a day or so to replenish the glycogen that was used, which is why it is important to eat well and regularly.
All of your muscles can use glucose, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins for energy, but your brain runs on glucose exclusively, and that glucose comes from circulating blood stores and from the breakdown of glycogen in your liver. Muscle glucose cannot be accessed for energy by your brain; it can only be used to fuel the muscles. When you run out of glucose, your brain function will precipitously decline. This manifests itself in an inability to concentrate, confusion, lethargy, shock, coma, and death–not the components necessary for a high-functioning firefighter.
The amount of glucose in your blood and liver is enough to supply your brain for six to eight hours, or basically overnight. If you don’t eat, your body will manufacture glucose not out of fat but out of body protein, your muscles.
Your body stores excess calories from carbohydrates, proteins, and fats as fat. Unfortunately, under most circumstances, you cannot easily take that fat and process into glucose to power your brain. Your brain demands energy and your body is obviously programmed to take very good care of your brain; so what’s a body to do? Simple, your liver uses stored protein (muscle) to manufacture new glucose (gluconeogenesis) to replenish you circulating blood sugar, thereby feeding your brain and sacrificing your skeletal muscle in this “robbing Peter to pay Paul” bargain.
You do not want to run out of glucose when you are dieting or at any other time, for that matter. If you don’t eat enough on a regular basis, you are sabotaging your weight loss and your performance by cannibalizing your hard-earned muscles and starving your brain.
Another problem with not eating enough is the adverse effect it has on performance and therefore motivation. If you’re hungry, you won’t feel like working out or working on the job. You aren’t thinking clearly, so it is difficult for you to make good decisions about what to eat and when to eat. So now your defenses are down, and as soon you find food (or what passes for food such as simple carbs), you are primed for making very bad decisions and, quite simply, you’ll more than likely eat everything in sight and then some.
Eating complex carbohydrate and protein at your meals and then as snacks on a regular basis throughout the day may keep you from hitting the weight loss wall as well as avoiding brain fog. Avoid high-sugar snacks because they may cause a spike in blood sugar, precipitating an antagonistic insulin spike–and soon you are hungry all over again. By maintaining a constant level of blood glucose, you can avoid the ups and down associated with extreme dietary restrictions. Eating a balanced diet with minimal overprocessed carbs makes for a steady metabolism. You may be consuming a few more calories, thereby slowing your weight loss slightly, but you will be assuring optimal performance in the short term and successful weight loss in the long run.
As a firefighter, you can never be too sure when you might get called out, and you can’t be sure as to how long you may be required to be on scene. If you have been dieting and went to bed hungry, then got a call at 2:00 a.m., you are literally setting yourself up for disaster.
It is of the utmost importance that you have a good-quality snack before turning in. This can be as simple as an apple with some peanut butter and a cup of milk. This is the dietary equivalent of topping off your gas tank before setting out on a long drive across the desert.
Any time of the day you get called, you need to think about the last time you ate. Generally, during the day this isn’t a major concern, particularly if you have been eating quality snacks throughout the day. At night, though, or if you have been dieting or working particularly hard in training, this can be a problem.
When I was in the Coast Guard, serving on board a 41-foot patrol boat doing search and rescue, we had a store of premade snacks that we were required to take along to eat on every call. They didn’t want to take a chance that the crew might run out of energy during the response, which might jeopardize the success of the mission. This was a very forward looking policy for the early 1980s, and on occasion it served us well.
Having a store of good snacks to eat immediately upon getting a call is very prudent. I don’t like to recommend any energy bar product, because many of them are little more than a Snicker’s candy bar in a different wrapper. That said, if you are looking for a simple source of energy to consume on the go, you could do worse than a “Tiger’s Milk Bar” (by the way, I have no relationship with the makers of this product). Each bar provides a good balance of carbs, fat, and protein at less than 150 calories. A box of these in the truck might be a very good addition to your standard equipment.
Eating a well-balanced diet may prevent you from gaining those unwanted pounds of fat in the first place as well as help you lose them if they are already there. The need to keep your mind sharp and your body moving outweighs the desire for quick weight loss, so take it slow; a pound per week is still 52 pounds in a year.
Never go for extreme diets. They are a risk that you as a firefighter simply cannot take.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.