What Should First Responders Eat?

Oct 23, 2020

Your job as a First Responder is taxing. Not only does it demand a lot physically, it also demands a lot mentally and emotionally. It requires grit, focus, physical and mental strength, determination, and perseverance. It requires that you are prepared to react to an emergency at any given moment – to leap into action whenever the call comes.

The need to be ready at all times is ever present. Physically ready, mentally ready, emotionally ready. And with such a great need and so much at stake, it is all-important that you have the physical and mental faculties to handle every situation you face. Such a need makes it crucial that you fuel your body with the nutrition that will maximize your abilities and make you more effective on the job.

So, I’ve been asked by many First Responders, What do I eat?

Although health and fitness goals may vary among First Responders, there are a few basic principles that should provide a foundation for better health, improved energy levels, and better performance on the job.

To begin, stick to foods that are processed as little as possible. This means as few steps between the harvesting of the food to it being on our plates. The fewer ingredients and less packaging it has, the better. For example, an apple is better than apple sauce, which is better than apple juice. Choose foods that are as close to their whole food form as possible.

Consume a wide selection of proteins, fats, and starchy carbohydrates in good balance, and eat plenty of different vegetables. Exactly how many carbs, fats, and proteins you consume each day depends entirely on your goals, activity level, lifestyle, and body weight. 

As First Responders, with your job being as demanding as it is, it’s important not to deprive your body of the nutrients you need to perform at your best. That means providing your body with enough of each of the macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins) as well as micronutrients (think nutrient dense foods like kale, spinach, sprouted grains, liver, egg yolks).

This also means eating a variety of foods – lots of vegetables of different colors, like dark green, purple, yellow, red, and white; a variety of starchy carbs like quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes, oats, and sprouted grains; a variety of proteins including bison, chicken, duck, tilapia, salmon, and protein-rich dairy; and a variety of fats including coconut oil, olive oil, butter (grass-fed is best), avocado, nuts, nut butters, and fish oils. 

Getting a variety means you’re covering your micronutrient bases – so you’re getting a lot of different vitamins and minerals, which means more energy, better recovery time, and increased mental clarity 

Another key factor is balance. Which can be hard because it’s easier to stick to extremes – either by being too strict or by completely letting go. It’s easy to want black and white nutrition rules and to cut out foods we deem “bad”, but in general, this approach doesn’t work in the long term. Balance is hard because that’s exactly what it is – balance. It’s like walking on a tight rope, which is an art that requires a lot of precision.

But it’s important to have balance so that on occasion we can handle a few drinks with friends or really enjoy a dessert without losing control, hating ourselves, and then depriving ourselves of all of our favorite foods for the next four weeks (only to relapse again at the end of the four weeks because it’s just too hard). It’s unrealistic to expect that our diets will be 100% “clean”, 100% of the time.

It’s also important to realize that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach – every individual is different and we each may require something a little different nutritionally. Which means we need to become good at listening to our body’s cues and signals – when we feel hungry or full, which foods make us feel energetic or tired, etc.

Again, the basic principles of healthy eating are:

1)    Pick foods that are minimally processed. This means going for foods that are, for the most part, not boxed or packaged. Choose products with as few ingredients as possible.

2)    Eat proteins, carbs, and fats in good balance (again, this depends on your goals, weight, and activity level) while also including a wide variety of vegetables. In general, women should aim for 4-6 servings of vegetables, while men should aim for 6-8. Those looking to gain muscle or improve athletic performance should generally increase servings of carbohydrates and fat, while those looking to lose body fat should decrease carbohydrate and fat levels and increase protein levels. Most basically, if you look at your plate, half of it should be made up of vegetables, one quarter of protein-rich food, and the other quarter of starchy carbohydrates.

3)    Eat a wide variety of foods. Eat as many different colors and types of vegetables as you can, and eat a diverse selection of starches, proteins, and fats. Don’t always eat the same thing. Your body needs nutrients from different kinds of food.

4)    Strive for moderation and balance. Don’t beat yourself up for indulging in a treat or having drinks with your friends on occasion. Don’t make it the custom, but learn to eat/drink mindfully and to really enjoy these occasions.

5)    Realize that the optimal diet for you and your goals may require experimenting with what works best for you. Listen to your body so you can eat when you’re hungry, realize when you’re full, and so you can understand what foods work best for you and which ones don’t.  

Those of you enrolled in online training with Heroic Athletics receive a nutrition guide that gives you macronutrient guidelines based on your specific goals.

These principles are not definitive by any means, but they do provide a foundation for  better health, greater focus and physical performance, which is of paramount importance to your job as a First Responder.


Coach Victoria Lancaster
[email protected]

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