“One of our lead nutritionists, Janine Henkel, is a former first responder. This blog, written “from the heart” by Janine is for anyone on today’s front lines, including those working in healthcare and essential services through these challenging times. We appreciate you so much. It’s also for anyone who needs their brain and body to function to its highest level at a moment’s notice and, as Janine likes to say – “anyone who isn’t guaranteed a bathroom break.” Moms of young kids included (we know what you have to do!). Truth is, there is wisdom here for all of us, even those of us at home day in, day out, trying not to make too many trips to the refrigerator. Tuck in…” (Romilly Hodges, Nutrition Programs Director)
ps. Janine is also leading one of our new Nutrition Group Programs for immune support, providing affordable access to valuable Functional Medicine services. Click here for more info and to sign up.
One winter I found myself leaning against a snow-covered tree with my eyes half closed, continually shifting my body position to try to stay awake. My last meal sat like a cannonball in the bottom of my gut and I regretted some of the choices I’d recently made.
It was 6 AM, 29 degrees out and I had already been outside for hours. My fingers were gripped so tightly around my rifle that I feared they’d frozen to it. And my brain was powering down as a result of a serious carb crash. I was failing.
Let me back up.
About 5 hours earlier I was at Denny’s with my co-workers and fellow Police Officers. It was our Friday and were celebrating making it through another workweek. Our favorite waitress Loretta joked and laughed with us as she brought endless plates of fried foods, bottomless coffee and soda’s. Her way of showing us motherly love.
“Who wants pie?” she yelled from the kitchen.
“WE DO!!” we cheered as we waved our hands in the air, laughing at the absurdity of NOT having pie.
After we stuffed ourselves, we leaned back, adjusted our duty belts and bragged about the insane amount of food we just put away.
Then it happened.
One of the officers said something no Police Officer should ever say:
“It sure has been a quiet night.”
Five sets of eyes immediately snapped towards him and narrowed. Realizing what he just did, he sheepishly smiled and said “Well, I guess I better use the bathroom while I can.”
But before he could even stand up, we heard it: the loud beeping tones on our radios to alert us of a serious call. An armed robbery with a gun. So out the door we ran, with Loretta trotting after us yelling “Be careful!!”
I was assigned a security spot outside the suspect’s house as they called out SWAT and Hostage Negotiators. And since sometimes bad guys just aren’t “feeling it” when it comes to cooperating, I was left stuck there hoping he would before they found my body frozen to the tree…all the while questioning myself on why I ate that 3rd helping of Loretta’s sweet apple pie.
The public was depending on me and my crew to keep them safe. But I was crashing fast and becoming worthless.
A job that absolutely requires 100% clear thinking and stable energy levels.
In a federally funded grant report published in 2012, John M. Violanti, Ph.D. remarked (bolding mine) “When one considers the monetary and human costs of fatigued officers, it is essential to promote scientific awareness and subsequent plausible interventions. The rate of officers dying from health related problems and accidents for example have surpassed the rate of officers dying from homicide. Fatigued or tired police officers are also a danger to themselves as well as the public they serve.”16
First Responders have the same struggles that most people do: finding the time and energy to make healthy meals. But an added wildcard is that their workday doesn’t have guaranteed breaks to stop and eat. Or go to the bathroom. So, nourishing and hydrating becomes problematic.
Cops usually view meals as a much needed break to recharge with co-workers, usually over the $5 lunch specials. Or strictly as a survival method (aka the Convenience Store Buffet or Fast Food drive thru) because their shift suddenly went from 10 hours to 18.
From my personal experience, a First Responder diet commonly looks like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, high-glycemic, carbohydrate and saturated fat-rich meals, refined protein/meal replacements, fast food and convenience store finds. Studies have not only acknowledged this, but also that longer hours and shift-work have a positive association with poor dietary choices.14, 15, 20 Studies have also shown a propensity towards alcohol use, including binge drinking, as a means to cope with the stress of the job.17
Let’s pull this modern-day warrior diet apart into the MATRIX
- High inflammatory foods like sugar, highly refined carbohydrates, processed meats, trans fats, alcohol.
- Blood Sugar Dysregulation sugary coffee and energy drinks, candy bars, cookies, meals reliant on rice, pasta and bread.
- Toxins in Food artificial color/flavors, preservatives like BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) & BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene), BPA (water bottles, cans), sodium aluminum sulphate and potassium aluminum sulphate commonly found in packaged foods, pesticides, advanced glycation end products (AGEs).
- Eating While Stressed, which can substantially increase postprandial lipemia18 (associated with type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and enhanced cardiovascular risk19).
Bottom line: It’s common to rely on fast food, be chronically dehydrated and not have time to chew in a profession where quick reactions, sound decision making, and stamina are a main part of the job description.
How Far We Have Come.
Although the job of a First Responder hasn’t changed that much, the diet certainly has. Ancient warriors and protectors relied on nutrient-dense foods that kept their energy levels revved up so they would be ready for battle.
Spartans famously ate “Black Soup”1, made of boiled pig’s leg, blood, salt and vinegar, along with various vegetables, fruit, dried figs plus limited amounts of barley, dairy from goats and sheep and wine2, 3.
On a side note Gladiators, sometimes referred to as hordearii (literally “barley men”), were armed combatants who entertained audiences during the Roman Empire. They appeared to have eaten a diet primarily based on simple carbohydrates like barley, in an attempt to gain body fat. This appears to be a survival method to provide a protective fat cushion from cuts and wounds.7,8 Another study shows fish and seafood were also part of their diet.10
Samurai Warriors would eat large amounts of fish (including eel and octopus), seaweed, fermented vegetables, rice, beans, nuts, green tea and sake4.
Mayan Warriors would rely on avocado, cacao, Maca, beans, quinoa, vegetables, corn, deer, peccary (pig), and chia seeds to sustain their long endurance runs5, 6.
Let’s pull this Ancient Warrior diet apart into the MATRIX
- Healthy carbohydrates to support energy levels, gut microbiome including complex, fiber and prebiotic – whole grains, gluten-free grains, beans/legumes, vegetables (starchy, fermented), fruits.
- Healthy variety of fats to support energy levels, hormones, reduce inflammation – Avocado, nuts, seeds, including omega-3 rich fats like chia, fish.
- Healthy protein to support brain function13, muscle recovery/repair, sleep – non-GMO soy, wild seafood, wild game, free-range animals.
- Antioxidants/polyphenols/minerals to help defend against oxidative stress, boost cognition11, support gut health12 – green tea, colorful fruits and vegetables, Maca, cacao, red wine, seaweed, pig’s blood9.
- Supports Overall Gut Health using complex carbohydrates, glutamine rich foods like fermented veggies, raw grass-fed dairy, bone broth and red meat.
How can we replicate to support modern day First Responders.
1. Start Your Day With Healthy Choices That Don’t Make You Crash
Our first meal can be the difference from “I’m ready!” to “I’m ready for a nap.” And with a long shift ahead of them, this is an especially important choice for First Responders. Swap out high-glycemic choices like sugary coffee drinks, bagels and cereal with ones that support the goal of staying alert and energized.
2. Go For Practical, Not Glamourous.
Lack of time is an obstacle that can have you waving the white flag after a few days trying to eat healthier. So keeping meals super simple instead of trying to recreate a gluten-free pizza or keto lasagna will save lots of time and frustration. It’s not sexy but eating super simple while transitioning to a heathier diet is a strong tactic to get you over the rough patches.
Think of the rule of three: healthy protein, carbohydrate and fat. Some examples can be last night’s baked chicken (protein) rolled in a collard leaf (carbohydrate) with some olive oil, avocado and tomatoes (fat, carbohydrates) stuffed alongside it. Paired with berries (carbohydrates) and a handful of nuts (carbohydrates, fat).
*If you’re curious, this meal would average 600 calories, 43g protein, 16g carbohydrates (11g fiber, 3g sugar), 41g fat and over 50% of the RDA for 10 different vitamins and minerals. (source: Cronometer.com)
3. Be A Diva (when you’re eating out or ordering takeout)
Most restaurants have a variety of food back there. So ask your server if it’s ok to make some slight adjustments. For example, create your own Taco Salad by replacing the deep-fried shell or chips with some extra veggies or guacamole. Or holding the bread on a chicken-salad sandwich and asking for a side-salad with extra olive oil.
You can also skip the main meal and pair together some clean side dishes with some protein to make it easier for your server or the “no substitutions!” policy. For example, at a Greek restaurant you could ask for some Gyro (sans pita), tzatziki (yogurt, cucumber and garlic), and olives.
*This is especially helpful if you find a restaurant that has the same staff. For example, Loretta made me “The Loretta Special”, a large salad with every vegetable and nut she could find in the kitchen topped with hardboiled eggs.
4. Eat For Two
Unexpected overtime and hungry co-workers can deplete your stash quickly. Double up on portions and keep healthy snacks like organic beef jerky and packs of nut butter in your go-bag to prevent the “I’ll just order a pizza” solution. And if you do run out of food, shop like you would off-duty: go to the grocery store and grab fruit, nuts/seeds, veggies and pre-cooked protein sources like hardboiled eggs, cans of wild salmon and rotisserie chicken. Keep the leftovers for another meal or share with others.
Around the 8th hour of the suspect’s standoff, I was relieved of my post. As I peeled my frozen fingers off my rifle, I felt a deep sense of shame. My lack of mental stamina and focus could have easily gotten someone hurt. And I was incredibly hungry, most likely from my body trying to stay warm.
So, I learned some important lessons:
- What you eat has a direct connection to how you feel. Poor food choices = you’ll soon feel like a tired bag of potatoes.
- If you need to stay alert, think clearly and have loads of energy, make food choices that support that goal.
- Keep healthy emergency snacks with you to support immediate basic needs. Even a pack of nut butter in my jump suit would’ve helped tremendously.
- “Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles: Translated from the French by Peter Green.” Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles: Translated from the French by Peter Green, by Robert Flacelière, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1965, pp. 170–171.
- Leonard, John. “What the Ancient Greeks Ate (and How They Ate It).” Greece Is, 12 Dec. 2018, www.greece-is.com/what-the-ancient-greeks-ate-and-how-they-ate-it/.
- “Sparta and Lakonia: a Regional History 1300-362 Bc.” Sparta and Lakonia: a Regional History 1300-362 Bc, by Paul Cartledge, Routledge, 2016, pp. 147–148.
- “Samurai.” Samurai, by Rachael Hanel, Creative Education, 2008, pp. 42–43.
- “Brain Food: the Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power.” Brain Food: the Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power, by Lisa Mosconi, Avery, an Imprint ofPenguin Random House, 2019, p. 76.
- Lambrecht, Eric, and Jared Krebsbach. “Why Were the Maya Such Excellent Warriors?” – DailyHistory.org, Aug. 2017, dailyhistory.org/Why_Were_the_Maya_Such_Excellent_Warriors%3F.
- Curry, A. (2008, November). The Gladiator Diet. https://archive.archaeology.org/0811/abstracts/gladiator.html
- Greger, M. (2018, December 3). The Gladiator Diet: How Vegetarian Athletes Stack Up. Retrieved from https://nutritionfacts.org/video/the-gladiator-diet-how-vegetarian-athletes-stack-up/
- Lynch, S. A., Mullen, A. M., O’Neill, E. E., & García, C. Á. (2017, February 9). Harnessing the Potential of Blood Proteins as Functional Ingredients: A Review of the State of the Art in Blood Processing. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1541-4337.12254
- Lösch, S., Moghaddam, N., Grossschmidt, K., Risser, D. U., & Kanz, F. (2014, October). Stable Isotope and Trace Element Studies on Gladiators and Contemporary Romans from Ephesus (Turkey, 2nd and 3rd Ct. AD) – Implications for Differences in Diet. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0110489
- Spagnuolo, C., Napolitano, M., Tedesco, I., Moccia, S., Milito, A., & Russo, G. L. (2016). Neuroprotective Role of Natural Polyphenols. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26845551
- Pacheco-Ordaz, R., Wall-Medrano, A., Goñi, M. G., Ramos-Clamont-Montfort, G., Ayala-Zavala, J. F., & González-Aguilar, G. A. (2018, January). Effect of phenolic compounds on the growth of selected probiotic and pathogenic bacteria. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=29063625
- Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Military Nutrition Research, & Lieberman, H. R. (1999, January 1). Amino Acid and Protein Requirements: Cognitive Performance, Stress, and Brain Function. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK224629/
- Gibson, R., Eriksen, R., Singh, D., Vergnaud, A.-C., Heard, A., Chan, Q., … Frost, G. (2018, December). A cross-sectional investigation into the occupational and socio-demographic characteristics of British police force employees reporting a dietary pattern associated with cardiometabolic risk: findings from the Airwave Health Monitoring Study. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6267403/
- Kuehl, K. S., Elliot, D. L., MacKinnon, D. P., O’Rourke, H. P., DeFrancesco, C., Miočević, M., Kuehl, H. (2016, May). The SHIELD (Safety & Health Improvement: Enhancing Law Enforcement Departments) Study: Mixed Methods Longitudinal Findings. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4863458/
- Violanti, J. M. (2012, March). Shifts, Extended Work Hours, and Fatigue: An Assessment of Health and Personal Risks for Police Officers. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/237964.pdf
- Ballenger, J. F., Best, S. R., Metzler, T. J., Wasserman, D. A., Mohr, D. C., Liberman, A., … Marmar, C. R. (2010, November). Patterns and predictors of alcohol use in male and female urban police officers. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3592498/
- Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2010, May). Stress, food, and inflammation: psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition at the cutting edge. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2868080/
- Lairon D, Lopez-Miranda J, Williams C. Methodology for studying postprandial lipid metabolism. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007;61:1145–61
- Bonnell, E. K., Huggins, C. E., Huggins, C. T., McCaffrey, T. A., Palermo, C., & Bonham, M. P. (2017, February 26). Influences on Dietary Choices during Day versus Night Shift in Shift Workers: A Mixed Methods Study. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5372856/