Fighting fire with education

Eating Well

November 12, 1996|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,Special to The Sun

"A dietitian can save the life of a firefighter by changing what he eats and drinks," says registered dietitian Cathy Kapica. That is because more than 50 percent of on-duty firefighter deaths come from heart attacks and strokes, says Hope Bilyk, a dietitian who teamed with Kapica to improve food choices of Chicago firefighters. Bilyk, a firefighter's daughter, divides firefighters' lifestyle stressors into two categories.

Unchangeables are defined by the job itself. Firefighters are on duty for 24 hours at a time. While fighting fires, they climb ladders wearing 52-pound rubber bunker suits that trap heat. They control hoses pressurized to 200 pounds. Working in 20-minute bouts, they are often exposed to 600-degree temperatures.

So these guys need to be in great shape. These men are, in effect, professional athletes. They need to be physically fit, with strong muscles, lean bodies, clear arteries, and above-average hearts and lungs.

Changeables are food, drink and physical activity. As athletes, they need to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and grain-based foods to store muscle glycogen needed for intense activity. And they need to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, which can cause disorientation, poor coordination, heat stroke and heart failure.

Working with 38 male firefighters between the ages of 27 and 50, Bilyk evaluated their on-duty food and beverages, and made two important discoveries.

First, the firefighters were averaging almost a pound of high-fat meat a day (like hot dogs and luncheon meats), as well as eating high-fat snacks by the bagful.

As most Americans know by now, weight gain, high cholesterol and clogged arteries often follow, making the unchangeable job stressors even more deadly. And the focus on meat meant they weren't eating enough fruits, vegetables, breads or cereals to keep muscles fueled for action.

Second, although they were drinking 61 ounces of fluid each day, 52 percent of their beverages contained caffeine, the great dehydrator. And they never carried drinking water on the fire truck water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink!

Bilyk also found that most of the firefighters already knew the benefits of eating a well-balanced, lower-fat diet. But like many people, they had no idea how to translate the concept into action.

So Bilyk spent about three hours with each of the three shifts, teaching them simple approaches to eating and drinking better.

They now average 66 ounces of fluid each day, with only 22 percent coming from caffeinated beverages. And they carry drinking water on the truck whenever they fight a fire.

Total "meat" consumption is down to about nine ounces per day, with an impressive shift toward chicken. Fruit, vegetable and grain foods are up a little. The firefighter who cooks on-site now uses heart-healthier olive oil. Several firefighters have lost weight, although that wasn't the focus of the training.

Perhaps a more important result is that the firefighters have become a support system, encouraging each other to maintain the changes they have made. Many are eating better on the job than they do at home. For some the changes have carried over to their families, so even wives and children are eating better.

Bilyk and Capica point out that research on firefighters' dietary practices is virtually nonexistent.

But think about how important that is to every neighborhood in our city, state and nation. In simple human terms, communities could go a long way toward improving firefighters' performance and preventing suffering and death by providing nutrition education right at the firehouse.

And the savings in health care dollars would be staggering if at-risk firefighters lived to battle the blazes one more time.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant at the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 11/12/96

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