Ever heard of the EMS diet? The one we are all “destined” to start at some point in our careers? It’s the one that includes all the foods those pesky nutrition plans won’t let you have like donuts, fast food, and buckets of soda. Sounds like a pretty good deal right?
I used to joke about the EMS Diet until I had a harsh reality check. The night I found out that I had high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol at age 30 changed my opinion about how humorous this lifestyle was. I could barely walk across the ambulance without getting winded. I was out of shape and headed for a medical disaster. That’s when I decided to change my lifestyle for good.
I reached out to a friend of mine that was a fitness coach. He set me up on an at-home fitness program: a running routine and a structured nutrition plan. Fast forward 8 months and you can find me doing P90X every day, eating better than I ever have, training for a half marathon and doing fitness coaching on the side. My work performance drastically improved along with my energy level and attitude. It was an absolute life changer.
Whether we realize it or not, EMS is a demanding job on our bodies. Irregular sleep cycles, long hours and stress all do their share of damage. This is why it is so important to be as healthy as possible, and nutrition plays a huge role in that.
The EMS Diet isn’t just bad for you, it’s killing you. It’s clogging your arteries, shutting down your kidneys, dehydrating you, overworking your heart and putting you at risk for stroke and cancer. The healthiest person inside our ambulance is often the patient. This is not ok.
Living a healthy lifestyle in a field full of temptation, excuses and resistance isn’t easy at first. It takes will power and desire to overcome the bad habits that you have created over the span of your life. However, by placing your personal health at the highest level of importance, you can accomplish this and you’ll be glad you did.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll be sticking to nutrition. We’ll cover fitness in the next installment.
Figure out why you want to be healthy
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s extremely important. If you’re going to move forward with changing your lifestyle, you have to know why. What is driving you to make these changes? What is going to keep you saying no when you want to say yes?
For me, my “why” is the thought of heart disease, carrying around bags of medications and potentially losing my ability to do the job I love. For you it may be your family or your children. It just needs to be something meaningful enough to keep you going.
Yes, I said to avoid diets. They restrict, deprive and lead to failure. Diets are something people start and stop. They’re temporary and usually miserable. Ever hear someone say they’re “going on a healthy lifestyle?” That’s because a lifestyle change is something you commit to for the rest of your life.
When you go on a diet, it’s like taking a high paying job that you hate. Sure, you’ll enjoy the money and the nice things that go along with it, but you’ll eventually grow resentful and either become miserable or quit. When you commit to a lifestyle change, it’s like taking your dream job. Yes, you’re still showing up and working every day, but you love what you do.
Get on a nutrition plan
When I committed to eating healthy, I spent weeks trying to figure out what plan was going to work for me. As it turns out I was making it entirely too complicated. I started clean eating 80-90% of the time, and that has worked for me ever since.
Clean eating is essentially avoiding processed foods and sticking to items that contain as few ingredients as possible. For example, a Doritos chip has more than 40 ingredients between artificial flavors, sugars, coloring, chemicals, etc. A piece of chicken, on the other hand, has one.
By sticking to whole foods (foods that your ancestors could recognize) you are taking control of what you put in your body. This also makes grocery shopping easy and yes, affordable.
As far as counting calories goes, it’s up to you. I personally don’t, but many people like to know exactly what they’re taking in. Just remember, it’s going to be difficult to consume too much healthy food.
As far as cheat meals go, if you’re eating clean 80-90% of the time, there is no reason why you can’t enjoy a pizza or cheeseburger from time to time. It’s all about moderation, not depravation. I still enjoy all the foods I did before, just not every day.
Find healthy foods that you like
This is possibly the most important step. You have to enjoy what you’re doing, or you won’t do it. I enjoy learning how to make healthy alternatives to traditionally unhealthy foods like street tacos, pizza, Buffalo wings, burgers and even potato chips. In many cases, I wind up enjoying the healthy versions even more than the original. Experiment a bit!
Prep your meals every week
Failing to plan is a plan to fail. You can’t just show up for your shift and expect to make healthy choices. You won’t succeed. You’ll show up with the best of intentions, but when a delicious #5 value meal is staring you in the face, you’ll be hard pressed to turn it down in favor of the chicken salad.
Bring your food!
At the start of every week I figure out what I’m going to bring and cook at the station. Then I spend an hour on Saturday or Sunday doing all my dicing, chopping, mixing, etc. I then freeze everything and pull it out when I’m ready to cook. This limits the amount of time that it takes to prepare meals. If you’re working 12-hour shifts on a street corner, then I would suggest pre-cooking your food and packing things that you can eat either hot or cold.
Pay close attention to ingredients
While processed foods are a no-brainer, health foods or protein supplements can be tricky. Many items labeled as health foods contain ingredients that you don’t want to consume. While it’s impossible to name everything, a good rule of thumb is no artificial sweeteners, no added sugars and no artificial flavors. The list goes on and on, but if what you’re buying has either of the 3 I mentioned, then they most likely contain other nasty ingredients.
I consume a daily meal replacement for lunch, but I had to spend a lot of time finding one that contained nothing but whole foods, lean proteins and vitamins. If in doubt, do a Google search for the nutritional value of the product you’re considering buying.
Have a backup plan
The only thing that’s predictable about our job is that we can’t predict it. This is why it’s important to have a plan B. For me, I keep some healthy snacks, a protein bar, and a spare serving of my meal replacement shake in a bag that’s stored in the ambulance. I also leave my debit card either at home or at the station. By knowing my challenges and temptations, I know how to set myself up for success.
Stick with it
Just like anything else, there will be times when you fall of the wagon or spend a vacation eating everything in sight. It’s not the end the world! Just pick up where you left off and keep pushing forward. Don’t let speed bumps completely stop you in your tracks. As time goes on, you’ll grow to love your new lifestyle and the results alone will keep you motivated.
Sean Eddy has worked as a paramedic for 10 years and now resides in North Texas. He is the author of MedicMadness.com and the founder of the #MoneySmartMedics campaign.