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Well-being: Strategies to keep firefighters healthy

I am about to embark on a sensitive topic: obesity and weight loss. Quite often firefighters ask about their weight concerns, and express a desire to lose weight. However, there are firefighters who are in complete denial about their weight. In my opinion, they are walking the fine line between life and death.

July 17, 2017 
By Elias Markou

Let’s face it, obesity is the elephant in the fire hall.  

According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, heart attacks are the biggest killer of firefighters over the age of 40. The nature of the job puts firefighters at a greater risk of heart disease, and obesity increases the heart attack risk. Luckily, firefighters can make small lifestyle changes that can address weight issues.

A 2012 study in the Journal of Obesity determined that obesity is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease mortality. The United States-based study said that in the group of 116 firefighters with an average age of 43, obesity was found in 51.7 per cent of the participants, while one-third of the general population is obese. The authors of the study said that improved cardiovascular disease risk identification among firefighters has important implications for both individual health and public safety.

Firefighters are in the business of safety and prevention and obesity is a preventable disease. Firefighters can protect themselves from type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, fatty liver, osteoarthritis, stroke and even cancer. Some of these diseases are difficult to manage; the scary part is that most of them can be fatal.

Energy imbalances involving poor food choices and lack of activity are the main cause of excess weight and obesity. This is where choice comes in; firefighters may choose to eat empty sugar calories or nourishing calories that will keep you feeling full and sustained.

When the number of calories eaten is equal to the number of calories the body burns, weight will remain the same. If firefighters burn calories at a faster rate than they consume, then they will lose weight. However, when firefighters eat and drink more calories than they burn, they will gain weight and perhaps push the scales over to obesity.

Here are some fundamental dietary principles firefighters should consider when beginning a weight-loss journey.

One hundred calories of milk chocolate is much different then 100 calories of an organic medium-sized apple. Both are sweet, but the effects of one can be sour. Calories are not created equally. A June 2012 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at participants who lost weight following a calorie-counted diet. Each group ate 2,000 calories per day; one group ate predominantly pasta and high-carb foods while the other test group stuck to a low-carb, low-glycemic index diet, which meant eating mostly vegetables and lean proteins. The results were predictable: participants in the healthy eating test group experienced between 4.5 and 18 kilograms (10 to 40 pounds) of weight loss.

Don’t get into the cycle of starvation. You still need to eat food during your weight loss process. Some will need to measure out food for the first few weeks until you get the hang of ideal portion sizes. You should have three to four small meals per day. Each meal should be small enough to fit into an average-sized cereal bowl, about 45 grams with about 400 calories per serving. Start off with small changes in your diet and lifestyle; small changes will be much more sustainable in the long run. For example, swap your slice of white bread with slices of a beefsteak tomatoes drizzled with cold pressed olive oil and Himalayan salt. Don’t think of it as cutting stuff out of your diet, but substituting good food in.

Natural whole foods should always be your go-to. Use simple basic ingredients with no additives or preservatives. You should also try to ensure that all of your vegetables, fruit and meat are farm-to-table.

Drinking water throughout the day, especially between meals, increases the feeling of fullness, resulting in eating smaller meals. Sometimes we confuse hunger with being thirsty. By drinking more water, you will find it easier to avoid idle snacking in the fire hall.

Your health is important and, for many of you, being a firefighter is your dream job. Why would you jeopardize all this for sugar? Make yourself the priority and shift your mind toward a healthier lifestyle.

Dr. Elias Markou is a naturopathic doctor in Mississauga, Ont. He is the chief medical officer for the Halton Hills Fire Department. Markou was a firefighter for six years; he is a firefighter health expert and blogger. Contact him at

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