Stop Poisoning Yourself!

( The Volunteer Firefighter )

By Richard Russotti, FASNY Health and Wellness Committee

Starting and maintaining a fitness program is a lot like being a firefighter … both can be difficult.

While firefighters rely on their solid knowledge of building construction, hydraulics and fire behavior, the world of fitness and dieting is full of conflicting information that can derail even the most serious fitness startups. One of the more common mistakes made by those starting or returning to a fitness lifestyle is cutting calories and making poor food choices.

Cutting calories and making sweeping changes to the way you eat may sound like a good idea, but may actually end up fueling the demise of your program rather than your body.

All firefighters should keep in mind that off-duty actions have on-duty consequences.

The implications of improperly fueling or eating go beyond the success or failure of a fitness program when it comes to the firefighter. All firefighters should keep in mind that off-duty actions have on-duty consequences. That is, you cannot expect to fuel your body with processed and fast food while off duty and expect to perform your best while on duty. The same holds true for your fitness program.

In short, whether fighting fires or working out, you need to have the proper fuel in your body to meet the demands placed on it.

Consequences of Poor Fueling

The link between poor dietary choices and various disease states is clear. Type two diabetes, high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome are just a few diseases that are linked to poor eating and lack of exercise. Again, implications for the firefighter go well beyond the workout.

Eating a diet full of processed and fast food may lead directly to poor performance on the fireground. Firefighters who are not properly fueled or hydrated may be at an increased risk of injury and poor decision making. Further, the impact of heat and cold may be greater on the firefighter who has consumed too few calories or is dehydrated.

Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, or RED-S, is a condition known to athletes that results in poor performance due to low energy availability from compromised nutrition. Problems associated with energy deficiency include early fatigue, immune system suppression and an increased risk of injury. While relative energy deficiency impedes athletic performance, it can spell disaster for the firefighter.

Know Your Numbers

Firefighters should know their daily calorie needs and the basic percentages of macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat, protein). These numbers can be used as a foundation for improved overall health as well as being prepared to exercise and operate on the fireground. A simple caloric needs calculator can be found at to give you a general ballpark of daily needs.

Stop Poisoning Yourself

A simple and effective way to get nutrition on track and be the best firefighter you can be is to stop poisoning yourself.

Think about everything you put into your body during the day. How much of that material is actually good for you or will improve your fitness? Try the following steps:

• Reduce or eliminate fast food and processed food from your daily intake. It is no secret that fast food is unhealthy. Some would even question if, in fact, fast food qualifies as food at all. Replace fast food and processed food with real foods: fruits, grains and vegetables are usually readily available options. The United States Department of Agriculture provides a variety of resources to help with food selection. Visit for more information.

• Use caution with supplements. Nutritional and dietary supplements, sometimes referred to as ergogenics, are not a food group! In fact, these products are not governed by the Food and Drug Administration and may provide no benefit at all. Some of these products have been found to contain harmful substances. Reliance on these products for performance enhancement or as a “meal replacement” can be a dangerous gamble as untested ergogenics may have negative gastrointestinal, liver or kidney side effects.

• Don’t drink your calories. Today’s trendy drinks often come loaded with calories and sugar. The so-called energy drinks are just as bad. Both of these examples may lead to a spike in blood sugar levels followed by a rapid decline, sometimes called a “crash” and contribute to weight gain and high blood pressure. The solution: improve your hydration.

That’s it … drink more water. Increasing your daily water intake helps manage body weight in addition to keeping cells and tissues of the body functioning. It is important to remember that many different variables contribute to your individual needs. Your own food sensitivities (and preferences) and health conditions must also be taken into account and your numbers may need to be adjusted based on these unique circumstances.

Seek help from a qualified nutrition professional if you have any existing food restrictions, allergies, chronic GI issues or disease states.

Remember, even small changes can make a big difference in the state of your health, and the energy you have each day. You do not have to make every change at once – just choose a place to start and stay committed to the healthy change.