Click the link below for a great podcast talking about Nutrition and Mental Health for First Responders
Your brain is always working. Sometimes we may question how much but your brain takes care of your thoughts and movements, your senses, your breathing, and heartbeat. It works hard 24/7, even while you are asleep. This means your brain requires a constant supply of good and healthy fuel.
Where does that fuel come from? Just like your muscles, the fuel you get for your brain comes from the foods you eat and drink. And the contents of that fuel can really make the difference in how your brain functions. Simply put, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.
Think of it like fueling the fire engine. If you put low quality fuel in the engine you get a low-quality output. Similarly, if you ingest highly processed and refined foods your brain and body function is slow and cloudy. Don’t believe it? There are multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function— and a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.
Conversely, eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress and keeps it functioning at its best.
An exceptionally large body of evidence now exists that suggests diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health. A healthy diet is protective, and an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for a plethora of health issue including depression and anxiety.
Nutrition and cognitive thinking
People who had higher levels of B family vitamins, as well as vitamins C, D, and E had higher scores on cognitive tests than people with lower levels. The same positive relationship was found for omega-3 fatty acids, which have previously been linked to better brain health. This is important for Chiefs and Captains to understand. The better your nutrition, the better your decisions and cognitive thinking.
Nutrition and its link to PTSD and mental health
It is now known that many mental health conditions are caused by inflammation in the brain. This inflammatory response starts in our gut and is associated with a lack of nutrients from our food such as magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, vitamins, and minerals that are all essential for the optimum functioning of our bodies.
Studies have compared diets, like the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet, to a typical “Western” diet and have shown that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in those who eat a traditional diet. Scientists account for this difference because these traditional diets tend to be high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood, and to contain only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy. They are also void of processed and refined foods and sugars, which are staples of the modern western dietary pattern. And the traditional diet also contains foods that contain probiotics and promote better gut health.
Nutrition and resilience
When you combine the stress of the job with poor nutrition and a lack of fitness, your body responds by increasing inflammation in your body and your brain. This inflammation leads to a ton of health issues physically and mentally. The fire service is seeing a huge increase in PTSD, suicide, and mental health issues. What first responders need to realize is that poor nutrition is a major contributor to these issues. Healthy foods that are high in antioxidants and nutrients can counter the high inflammatory responses in the body.
How to eat for health and resilience
If you are already stressed out, running a ton of calls, and trying to manage kids and life through the Covid crisis, spending hours in the kitchen is probably not realistic. But there are simple ways you can put a little extra thought into what you are eating and help your body fight stress and inflammation in the process. Here are three simple strategies.
- Stay prepared and keep it simple. If you do not have time to make dinner, grab a rotisserie chicken, some steam-in-the-bag frozen veggies, some minute rice. It is not the most “gourmet” food list but it these options are quick and healthy. Get in the habit of having healthy foods already prepared or easily prepared so you do not make poor decisions when you are hungry.
- Out with the bad, in with the good. I hope you understand (from reading all the above information) that nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and even fermented dairy products are going to help fight inflammation, whereas things like fried foods, lots of sugar, overly processed foods and lots of red meat are only going to add to it. Make sure you have these healthy foods on-hand and stocked. If your cupboard is full of high sugar foods, chances are you will reach for them when tired and stressed. If you have some celery or grapes available (and not the sugar options) chances are you will make a better choice and eat the healthy foods.
- Eat more mindfully. Stress-eating is the opposite of mindfulness, in that it makes us scarf down whatever is within reach without paying much attention to what we are eating or how we are eating it. Instead, make a more conscious effort to note, what you are eating. Ready labels and take time to chew your food. If we eat too fast, we tend to overeat. A great rule of thumb is to eat slowly and STOP EATING when you are 80% full. Click here for a great blog post on why this trick helps you lose fat.
And, if you read labels you will start to get more educated on what you are eating and what a serving size is. I created a great post that goes into more details about portion control and labels, I highly suggest reading it. Click here for the Golden Rules of Firefighter Nutrition
Most firehouses are filled with great cooks and tasty foods. But, before you reach for that pastry or baked good or chips and soda, ask yourself if this is going to help you feel better, think more clearly, and perform better? We as fire rescue athletes need to understand how nutrition fuels our brains and bodies and the traditional firehouse meals of high fat and sugar need to change. If you frequently cook for your crew and/or family I challenge you to start preparing meals that improve overall health instead. Limit the sugars, fats and processed foods and I guarantee you will start thinking more clearly, performing better, and feeling better.
We can improve the health and fitness culture of the fire service, one bite at a time!
Stay safe, stay positive and GET FRF!
Zam- Aaron Zamzow