By Todd LeDuc
We routinely hear that the essential job tasks that firefighters perform on the fireground are equivalent to the physical exertion, strength, and endurance expected of professional athletes. This notion produced the term “tactical athletes.” However, research duty by Dr. Sarah Jahnke and others have looked at firefighter weight gain and obesity over the course of a career, particularly comparing departments that have implemented health and wellness programs versus those that had not. Specifically, the “Fuel to Fight” study compared 10 departments that had implemented wellness programs versus 10 that had not. The study found that departments that lacked these programs experienced a high prevalence of overweight and obese firefighters—greater, in fact, than rates of obesity found in the general population. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has spent time in the fire service. Firefighters’ healthy weight can be often sabotaged by interrupted eating cycles, poor sleep, stress eating, binge drinking, sugars, starches, and high carbohydrate intake, all compounded by portion sizes. One study found that 69 percent of firefighters received no nutrition advice during their annual exams or wellness programs and that 48 percent of obese members received no guidance or education.
We know from reported research there are links between poor diets and obesity with diabetes, cardiovascular risk, and certain types of cancers. Research has noted the link between obesity and diseases for those reported to follow more of a Western diet—high in fats, red meats, sugar, white wheat, and carbohydrates. Conversely, populations that have followed more of a plant-based or “Mediterranean” diet—heavy on the fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, lean proteins, fish, and red wine consumption with dinner—have comparatively less disease risk and longer life expectancy.
Building on this knowledge, researchers from Harvard University Chan School of Public Health led by Dr. Stefanos Kales and funded from a Federal Emergency Management Agency research and development grant have created a toolbox for firefighter nutrition. I have been honored to serve as a fire service advisor to this project. An entire resource is available to educate the service about approach to nutrition and performance, and it can be found at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/firefighters-study/feeding-americas-bravest/ One simple resource strictly provides visual education and awareness, embodying the adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
We also know that assessment of nutrition must be included as part of the annual firefighter medical exam. Feedback and coaching are critical. Additionally, wellness programs must be built around a foundation of proper nutrition aimed at reducing risk of diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, cardiac events, and certain cancer.
Todd J. LeDuc, MS, CFO, FIFirE, retired after nearly 30 years as assistant fire chief of Broward County, Florida, an internationally accredited career metro department. He served as chief strategy officer for Life Scan Wellness Centers, a national provider of comprehensive physicals and early detection exams. He has served as a member of the International Association of Fire Chief’s Safety, Health & Survival Section for over a decade and is currently secretary of the section. He is a peer reviewer for both professional credentialing and agency accreditation. He is editor of Surviving the Fire Service (Fire Engineering Books) and serves on numerous advisory boards and publications.