When you start feeling the effects of long hours spent on patrol without a solid meal, you face a real job hazard. Poor food choices — combined with stress, erratic sleeping habits, often unpredictable conditions and other factors unique to police work — can take a toll on officers’ health over time, in the form of depression and disease. Michael Walker, a retired police lieutenant, member of Capital City Lodge #74 in West Virginia, and certified personal trainer and fitness instructor, has seen firsthand the toll that poor health can take on officers. “Two of the cops I worked with committed suicide and three others had heart attacks before they were 50,” he says. Fortunately, officers can greatly offset these negative factors by adopting some simple, positive habits. “A regimen of regular exercise and good nutrition is the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle that contributes to the physical and mental well-being of all public safety officers,” says Walker. Read more from the interview with Michael Walker.
Eat Mindfully, Plan Ahead
Fitness trainer and Lieutenant Terry Poche of Louisiana Lodge #12 says, “There are times when we simply need a between-meal snack or have to put off eating a meal due to a work-related issue. Those are the times when most officers simply eat whatever is available, and it is usually some form of junk food.”
Keeping wholesome snacks easily accessible in your patrol car or locker will provide you an alternative to a midday potato-chip fix. Poche recommends these:
- Fresh fruit: Apples and bananas are especially good on the go.
- Unsalted nuts: They stay fresh for an extended length of time. Add in some dried fruit to make your own trail mix.
- Bottled water: Always keep water on hand, and remember to drink it!
The American Heart Association estimates that for the one in three Americans who will develop high blood pressure, a high-sodium diet may be to blame. Remember that “healthy” fast-food options can be extremely high in salt, many meeting or exceeding your recommended intake for the entire day (see the Food for Thought sidebar for examples).
Be wary of sweets and desserts, too. A recent study found a strong association between added dietary sugar and heart attacks. (People who consume 10% to 25% of their calories from added sugar have a 30% increase in fatal heart disease.) More than seven out of 10 adults in the U.S. get more than 10% of their calories from added sugar, while one out of 10 gets a full 25% of calories from added sugar. Like hidden sodium, savory foods like crackers and chips often have hidden sugar as well, so be sure to read the label. Walker advises that fats should make up no more than 30% of your total diet, and recommends avoiding saturated (animal) fat and hydrogenated fats (commonly found in processed foods), opting for plant-based fats — such as olive or canola oils, avocado and nuts — whenever possible.
On the Go
So what if you just don’t have the option of preparing or carrying your own meals? Maybe you’re on patrol without a car, like Police Specialist/ Intel Analyst Jason Lamb, Ohio Lodge #69, who spent many years on bike patrol and is currently a certified cyclist with the International Police Mountain Bike Association.
Lamb recommends keeping a mental list of the healthier fare that certain chains like Chipotle or Subway carry, opting for fresher foods with an emphasis on leaner meats and complex carbohydrates. “[They] don’t contribute to a crash like some heavier fast-food options, like hamburgers and fries,” he says. Better-for-you options that nearly every fast-food chain carries include*:
- Grilled chicken sandwiches: Go for grilled chicken, no fries and hold the mayo. Top with mustard, lettuce and tomato instead. Try a salad or plain baked potato as your side.
- Sub sandwiches: Opt for whole-grain bread and lean meats like roast beef, chicken breast and turkey.
- Salads: Avoid the mayonnaise-based dressings and high-calorie add-ons such as cheese and bacon bits.
- Fruit: You can usually find either a fruit cup or a yogurt parfait on the menu as a good option for dessert.
Once you start learning the nutritional information, it becomes second nature and simply part of your eating strategy. “Healthy eating habits are a lifestyle change for many and are very available to those who choose them,” says Walker, wryly adding: “Live to become a burden on the retirement system, not a gift to it.”
- Job demands put officers at risk for high blood pressure, insomnia, heart problems, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.*
- Law enforcement officers have greater disease and mortality rates than the general public, largely due to cardiovascular disease, colon cancer and suicide.**
- Studies show that the risk of having a heart attack doubles with each decade of law enforcement service.***
* 2008, Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress Study
** 1983-1993, Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research
*** 1998, Collingwood et al., Fit Force Administrators Guide
Avoid downing a Big Gulp; you need sustained energy and alertness to get you through your shift, not a rollercoaster of blood sugar spikes and crashes. In fact, try to break the soda habit altogether. “Even the diet types contain some interesting ingredients that look more like they belong in a science experiment.” — Fitness trainer and Lieutenant Terry Poche of Louisiana Lodge #12
Consider buying a small cooler or insulated lunch bag and bringing your own meals, sandwiches and crunchy snacks like fresh vegetables, instead of chips, from home to help you limit your intake of salt.
Food for Thought
Nutrition labels base daily percentages of fat, sodium, carbohydrates and other values on a 2,000-calories-per-day diet. According to the USDA’s www.ChooseMyPlate.gov, men ages 31-50 should limit their caloric intake to 2,200 calories per day and women in the same age group should aim for 1,800. A typical fast-food meal of burger, fries and soft drink could easily be more than half that, and if you super size or add a shake you could exceed your daily calorie limit in one meal! Current sodium recommendations are less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day, equivalent to about a teaspoon of table salt, with only 1,500 mg a day recommended for those with cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure. Here are the calorie and sodium counts for some popular fast-food chain items:
- Big Breakfast with Hotcakes (regular size biscuit): 1,090 calories, 2,260 mg sodium
- 10 oz. Spicy Chicken McBites: 910 calories, 1,990 mg sodium
- Large French fries: 500 calories, 350 mg sodium
- 22 oz. chocolate McCafe shake: 850 calories, 380 mg sodium
- BK Ultimate Breakfast
- Platter: 1,450 calories, 2,920 mg sodium
- Triple Whopper: 1,020 calories, 1,090 mg sodium
- 8-piece chicken nuggets: 380 calories, 610 mg sodium
- 16 oz. vanilla milkshake: 730 calories, 430 mg sodium
- 6” Spicy Italian sandwich: 480 calories, 1,490 mg sodium
- 6” cold cut combo: 360 calories, 1,030 mg sodium
- B.L.T. with avocado salad: 260 calories, 410 mg sodium
- Cheeseburger, 3/4 lb. triple: 1,090 calories, 1,990 mg sodium
- Caramel Frosty shake, large: 990 calories, 510 mg sodium
- Spicy chicken Caesar salad: 480 calories, 1,030 mg sodium
Read the full Summer 2014 FOP Journal issue.