If you want to get the most out of your shifts, your day and your career, your diet should be a top priority.
Food is the fuel that helps us think and perform at our best. The right foods can mean energy and nutrients to help you manage the demands of the job. The wrong foods can add to the stress we already go through and leave your mind cloudy and body inflamed. So, if you want to make the most of your shift, your day, and your career, your diet should be a top priority!
It is therefore important to closely monitor what you are putting in your mouth and on your plate. Here are 10 (actually 11) key foods that every fire rescue athlete should try to intake to help manage stress and boost performance.
Blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries are just a handful of the delicious berries that are rich in antioxidants. These darker berries contain phytochemicals and antioxidants that prevent oxidative stress that occurs in the body during strenuous activities and stressful shifts. They also preserve muscle strength as you age, so they are good for the long term. Try to choose berries with darker colors like blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries because they have more phytochemicals and protective substances. And remember: Frozen berries are just as nutritious as fresh ones, but they keep far longer (up to nine months in the freezer), making it easier to always have them ready to eat.
All vegetables are good vegetables when it comes to providing the vitamins and minerals your body needs for optimal performance. But the dark, leafy greens and members of the cruciferous family (like broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and kale) have higher concentrations of antioxidants, fiber, and other important nutrients. They also contain high levels of vitamins A, K and B6, and calcium and iron, all of which protect the body against inflammation. High iron content also means more oxygen being supplied to working muscles. Kale contains carotenoids and flavonoids, two power antioxidants, and fiber, which helps lower cholesterol. As with fruits, it is important to eat a variety of different colors and remember darker is better, except for cauliflower, which holds its own in terms of health benefits and antioxidant properties.
Athletes like firefighters, EMTs and medics need protein to help rebuild muscles and promote recovery after tough workouts and shifts. Just one four-ounce serving of chicken can supply about almost half of your daily protein needs. Along with protein, chicken contains selenium, a trace element that helps protect muscles from the free-radical damage that can occur during exercise, and niacin that helps regulate fat burning during long shifts and workouts. This makes chicken an excellent choice for firehouse and family meals.
Beans may not be the protein powerhouse that steak or poultry is, one cup of black beans has about 220 calories and 15 grams of protein, versus 185 calories and 35 grams of protein for 4 ounces of skinless chicken breast. But unlike animal protein, beans have no saturated fat and are also a good source of fiber, which can help keep you feeling fuller for longer. Vegetarians and meat eaters alike can get their fill of plant-based protein by eating beans and legumes. Black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, lima beans… the varieties are endless! You can add them to a salad or cook them into a stew or chili.
This oily fish is packed with omega 3-fatty acids and lean, muscle-building protein. The fatty acids reduce inflammation that can happen with continual stressful shifts and long workouts. It is also a natural artery cleanser, helping to prevent heart disease, which is one of the top leading causes of firefighter fatalities. Get creative and enjoy salmon in burgers, salads, or pastas to get the recommended eight ounce serving per week.
Bananas are a low-calorie, excellent source of natural electrolytes, which need to be replaced after a workout and/or long call. At about 100 calories, bananas are a great source of easy-to-digest sugar and natural electrolytes. One medium banana contains 422 mg of potassium, which your body needs to regulate fluids and prevent muscle cramps and spasms. Because you sweat out potassium during physical activity and through your shift, it is important to replenish as soon as possible afterward.
Nuts are high in protein and healthy fats, making them a great option for athletes and first responders. Eaten with carbs, they help level out your blood sugar and sustain the carbs over a longer period of time, rather than burning them off right away. Nuts are also easy to digest and do not upset your stomach. Another plant-based protein, nuts are rich in fiber and antioxidants like vitamin E. The anti-inflammatory nutrients found in nuts makes them great for bone and joint health. Personally, I always like to eat almonds during long shifts and try to always have some available in case of a long call(s).
Wrongly accused of being responsible for raising the level of "bad" cholesterol, eggs can be easily consumed at any time of the day and in hundreds of different ways. Egg protein is the most complete food protein short of human breast milk, which means the protein in eggs contains all the crucial amino acids your hard-working muscles need to promote recovery. Eggs also contain about 30 percent of the Daily Value (DV) for vitamin K, which is vital for healthy bones. And eggs contain choline, a brain nutrient that aids memory. Choose omega-3 enhanced eggs and you can also increase your intake of healthy fats. Do not worry about the high cholesterol: recent studies have shown that egg eaters have a lower risk for heart disease than those who avoid eggs.
Sweet potatoes are rich in vitamins A and C, both antioxidants that remove free radicals from your body. They lower blood pressure, which is important for all first responders’ heart health. Sweet potatoes also contain potassium, iron, manganese, and copper which support healthy and strong muscles. They are relatively easy to prepare and a great fueling option. Serve on the side with some chicken or top with some cottage cheese as a snack.
Oatmeal is an excellent source of energy for first responders that is high in fiber and whole grains. This combination of fiber and grains helps you feel fuller longer and lowers your risk of heart disease. Choose steel cut oats over instant oats whenever possible. The instant oats have a higher glycemic index, which will cause your insulin levels to spike, causing you to end up storing the carbs as fat. Try to substitute your breakfast cereal with oatmeal and some fruit.
Low-sugar Greek Yogurt
Besides being a good source of protein and calcium (one cup provides 13 grams of protein and 40 percent of the DV for calcium), low-fat Greek yogurt with live cultures provides the healthy bacteria your digestive tract needs to function optimally. These good bacteria may also have anti-inflammatory powers that can offer can lower inflammation and help relieve sore muscles and joints. Watch for yogurts with a lot of added sugars. Choose brands that have under 10 grams of added sugars and have the live-culture symbol on the carton.
An antioxidant-filled fruit, cherries aid in preventing muscle pain after long strenuous workouts and shifts. Many athletes consume cherry juice as another way to lower exercise-based muscle damage, which can help reduce soreness. Consuming an ounce or two after a long strenuous shift or fire call can have the same effect. Keep an eye out for more research on tart cherries, I feel that they can really help to reduce post incident heart attacks and strokes.
Poor eating habits will eventually lead to poor performance and possible disease. As you can see from the foods mentioned, we as fire rescue athletes benefit most from foods high in protein, vitamins, and fiber to manage stress and enhance performance. It does not matter if you are volunteer or career, your body needs the right nutrients to fuel itself during calls and through the day. These foods provide the restorative, energy-boosting properties necessary to stay healthy while putting your body through the stress of the job. Eat like an athlete…. because you are!
Stay safe, stay fit, stay positive.