Among their many medical functions, our ambulances can act as trash containers full of evidence of our poor eating habits.
I am referring to the dashboard that is a minefield of empty fast-food wrappers, fountain soda cups and energy drink cans. Below are some strategies you can use to change all that and get started on the path to healthy eating, while freeing up the dashboard in your ambulance for its intended purpose—bookshelf and IV fluid warmer.
1. Plan Ahead
Plan your meals ahead of time by bringing food from home, or buying an entire shift’s worth of food at its start. The combination of knowing what you will eat, and having it with you when it’s time to do so, will be the best method of keeping you from making bad food decisions “in the moment.”
Sandwiches are easy to make and easy to eat on the go. Just make sure your sandwich (and any food you bring) serves to provide you with the right kind of fuel—think whole wheat bread or whole wheat wrap paired with one of the protein options mentioned below. Swap out high-fat condiments like mayonnaise for healthier, high-flavor choices such as mustard or salsa.
Various types of quick and easy premade dishes can be stored in hard, sealable containers and brought to work. Throw a piece of chicken, fish or other protein of choice on the grill (or stovetop grill pan) for a no-frills, hassle-free and satisfying meal you will find yourself wanting to dig into mid-shift.
Foods packaged specifically for quick or instant cooking, such as single-serving “just add water” brown rice cups, or single envelopes of oatmeal, can be used as valuable assets when deciding what to pack. Most coffee shops and establishments I’ve encountered are more than willing to accommodate a request for a cup of hot water so I can “cook” my breakfast or side dish on the go.
2. Eat at Regular Intervals
Having your food with you and your meals planned ahead of time makes this infinitely easier, especially in a busy EMS system. Eat smaller amounts, approximately 200 to 500 calories every two to four hours throughout the day—depending on the time of day and size of the meal—to prevent you from becoming ravenous, and subsequently making poor food choices out of hunger or desperation. It will also keep you from overeating once you finally do get a chance to eat. As a bonus, eating at regular intervals will also help you maintain focus, concentration and critical-thinking skills necessary for optimal job performance.
3. Avoid Overeating
It’s only natural to want to shove as much food as possible into your body when you don’t know when your next meal will be, and I know it feels good to get those bites in when you’re very hungry. In the end, though, eating uncontrollably and feverishly can end up being counter-productive.
Overeating will cause you to feel tired, bloated or generally not in the mood to do much, especially some of the more physically intensive aspects of the job such as holding c-spine while curled up inside a vehicle, or carrying an unresponsive patient down the stairs.
Stop eating when you start to feel full. This seems obvious, but most people don’t do it. Let the food settle for a few minutes, and if you truly still feel hungry, go back for a few more bites.
4. Size Up Servings
If you can’t tell what a serving size or the appropriate recommended amount of a particular food is, look it up. Most of this information can be found on the outer packaging of foods, and printed on menus or signs in eateries and food establishments.
It’s important to note that although this information is “per serving size,” there can be more than one serving size contained within a package. This can trick you into thinking you are only eating a select amount of calories, while you are, in fact, eating double or triple that amount. For example, in a popular iced tea drink, the serving size is 8 fluid ounces, and contains 100 calories and 24 grams of sugar. Yet, if you look closely on the label next to the serving size, it reads: “servings per container: 2”. In actuality, drinking the entire iced tea drink will give you 200 calories and 48 grams of sugar.
5. Balance Your Food
At its base, a healthy meal includes a balance of proteins, carbohydrates and fruits or vegetables. Low-fat dairy and healthy fats can be added or subtracted in meals throughout the day and as snacks.
Aim for lean protein, which is any protein source said to contain high-protein content relative to the fat content. This includes foods such as white meat chicken breast and grilled or baked (not fried) chicken; turkey; and sirloin and flank steak. As a guideline for meat and steaks, the more marbling of white fat that can be seen on a piece of meat, the higher the fat content. Lean ground beef, labeled as 90% lean/10% percent fat (often notated as 90/10), extra lean ground beef, labeled as 95% lean/5% fat (95/5), as well as egg whites, tofu and most types of seafood provide a variety of ideal protein sources from which to choose.
Include carbohydrates such as brown rice, whole grain and whole-wheat breads and pastas, quinoa, beans and baked potatoes (both sweet potatoes and white potatoes), as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Carbohydrates in these forms are some of the preferred sources because they provide the most useful and sustained forms of fuel without all of the refined extras that tend to get stored in our bodies.
Low-fat dairy can be most easily eaten in the forms of reduced-fat cheese, milk and yogurts. Healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil, nuts and avocados can be easily incorporated into any food arsenal. Almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts and macadamia nuts are just a few types of nuts that can be easily added to any healthy eating plan, but make sure to stick to nuts that are not roasted and not salted (often referred to as “raw” or “natural” on the packaging).
When eating nuts, (as with all foods) pay special attention to the serving size, which generally equals a palmful. Most nuts are high in fiber and protein as well as fat, and this small amount will actually make you feel full.
6. Stay Hydrated
Our bodies are comprised of approximately 60% to 70% water. As such, we require a lot of water to keep us functioning, and we require it in constant supply throughout the day. It’s easy to carry a water bottle with you, or to toss it in your gear bag at the start of your shift, so there’s really no reason not to have one at all times. The human body sometimes mistakes thirst for hunger, and drinking the equivalent of one glass of water when you feel hungry will actually make you feel less so, as you fulfill your body’s actual need for more fluid rather than more food.
Water also functions to flush toxins and waste out of our bodies, and to keep our kidneys in shape and constantly in action. If all of those reasons don’t seem good enough, and when all else fails, at least it will give you good reason to get off that street corner post and go in search of a restroom!
7. Seek Out Healthy
Don’t get fooled by the word “healthy.” Just because something says “healthy” on the package or comes with a lot of green leafy stuff, that doesn’t mean it is actually good for you, or that you should eat it. Along the same lines, you should not use the same, single food as your one and only source of fuel and nourishment over the span of an entire day, no matter how healthy it claims to be.
Salads—a type of meal viewed as healthy—can contain so many extras when prepared in restaurants to make them taste good and appealing (including exorbitant amounts of full-calorie, full-fat dressings), that you may be better off sticking with a grilled chicken sandwich. The accompanying dressings, along with other items found in most purchased and pre-prepared salads, will add fats and calories without adding substantial nutritional value or useful fuel.
If you don’t want to give up on the idea of salad, frequenting salad bars can be great option because you can easily control what goes into your salad and you can personalize any additions to meet your specific eating preferences. When taking a closer look at the grilled chicken sandwich, the carbohydrates and protein of the sandwich deliver a straightforward, one-two punch that will keep you full until the next time you eat. Just hold the fries, or even add some vegetables or fruit for good measure, and you don’t have to feel bad about NOT getting that salad.
The best tips or suggestions for eating healthy in EMS are ultimately the ones that work for you. So do whatever you think you need to do in order to make eating healthy in EMS easy for you. Modify, change, adapt and adopt any healthy eating principles that are based on sound and proven nutrition principles and guidelines. As long as you want to eat healthy, you’ve already won the first big battle.
Yael Nelson, MICP, has worked as a paramedic since 2005 in Newark, NJ, and is an instructor of several EMS-related disciplines. Yael is also a competitive powerlifter. Contact her at YaelL.Nelson@gmail.com.