I never thought that my job title (nutritionist for firefighters) would ever spark the amount of conversation that it does. As much as our jobs aren’t everything, they absolutely are something, and a big part of our lives. So, the typical question of “what do you do?” comes naturally when you meet someone for the first time.
When I niched down and started designing nutrition education programs for fire departments, I discovered a variety of responses that usually led to more questions. Let’s explore the most common responses to “I’m a nutritionist for fire departments” and where the conversations tend to go:
Wow, that’s interesting! How did you get involved with that? During what I thought would be a gap year before going back to school for a PhD in nutrition science, I started doing 1:1 work. I started working with a client, a boxing coach (I should probably add that he happens to be a firefighter.), who was interested in getting in the best shape and weight class for his next fight. I put together a thorough game plan and worked with him to reach his goals and thought that would be it. To my surprise, he ended up sharing the plan with others at the firehouse, and then I was asked to create a proposal for a nutrition program for an entire department that started with just one presentation.
I remember thinking and saying, “If I can teach college students, I can absolutely teach anyone.” I said this during an interview. The response from a Chief was, “If you can teach firefighters, then you can teach anyone!” I’ve held on to that moment for a long time because it was a transition moment of me thinking “what if.” What if I could make this my career? That feeling of “what if” never went away, and here I am today, specializing in this niche trying to make nutrition for firefighters a priority within the fire community and to improve the health and wellness of as many firefighters as possible.
I didn’t know that was a job, how did you get that? I made it. After my first contract was over, I couldn’t quit the thoughts of making this a career, even if others weren’t ready for it (yet). I saw a need for this type of work, I thought I could provide value and be of help to the fire community, and I created my own job. I engrossed myself into the evidence-based research on the fire community and how health and wellness programs could be the best investment that departments make. I pitched my work time and time again (and continue to do so) until the nos turned into yeses, and the right yeses ended up being the best fit. I learned more about the community through experience. I found an absolute passion and became fulfilled by that work that I do. I created trustworthy relationships. And I never stopped, regardless of every barrier that’s come my way — I kept going (and still do), one foot in front of the other, one more approach to improve buy-in, one new idea on how we can support the health and wellness of firefighters. It’s all a culmination of understanding that in order to achieve cultural shifts that we have to understand that they will take trial and error, and most importantly, time.
Nutrition program, why would firefighters need that?
We could all benefit from understanding food’s impact on our health and applying the knowledge gained into practice. In fact, firefighters are just like you when it comes to food shopping, meal prep, and all things related to food. This means that most of them are looking to shop on a budget (their own dime I might add, just like us); sometimes struggling to figure out what to eat, how to cook it, make it nutritionally sound, and then wanting it to taste good/enjoyable.
What makes nutrition for firefighters that much more important is the risk — they have a higher prevalence of obesity and overweight statuses compared to the general public, as well as job-related health conditions (ex: cancer rates). Plus, the physically demanding job tasks rely on department member’s physical fitness to be at its best. Given that nutrition and exercise are two modifiable factors that we can change for the better that can impact our health, focusing on improving nutrition can make a large impact on one’s health both on and off shift. Since I receive so many questions on where to start (from both firefighters and nutrition professionals), if interested in making nutrition for firefighters a priority for your department, I wrote this article for Firehouse Magazine, which explores a step-by-step approach for making effective changes to your firehouse’s nutrition environment.
I founded The Cultural Shift Method, a nutrition education program for firefighters, off of the idea that health and wellness of our first responders is needed for healthy departments and communities. The combination of nutrition education, healthy cooking sessions, and budget and time sensitive options creates a cultural shift, where sustainable behavior changes add up and healthier fire departments are a result. Promoting health and wellness in the form of nutrition education, functional fitness work, injury prevention, stress coping mechanisms, etc., allows firefighters to show up better for themselves and their communities. What’s at stake when health and wellness aren’t valued by firefighters/departments and trainings don’t support them? It can range from physical job performance; to general health (and nutritional related health risks like heart disease and some cancers); to happiness; to enjoying life on and off shift, and beyond retirement; and much more.
Lastly, what’s it like working with firefighters? There’s never a dull moment. That sentence alone is vague, but I promise you that it’s the perfect description. You absolutely never know what you’re going to get on any given day — and that is one of the exact reasons why I continue to show up for this community, so that they can show up for themselves and others. From the job tasks, types of calls, humor, and camaraderie; to the chaos, to the silence — there truly is never a dull moment, and I am here for it.