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Paramedics, do you have a food problem?

EMTs and paramedics need food that heals, not poisons that harm, while making them feel good at the same time


A man pours mayonnaise over his plate of french fries and sausage at a fast food stand.

AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa

Imagine looking at a burger and fries and the thought of eating it churns your stomach instead of making your mouth water. What if you looked at a kale salad and just knew how good you would feel after eating it?

How we perceive food is both a process we learn and partly how we are programmed. How we eat — and how we approach food — is what really matters.

To change our diets, we first have to re-learn the art of eating, which is as much about psychology as it is nutrition. We have to find a way to want to eat what’s good for us.

“All the foods that you regularly eat are ones that you learned to eat. Everyone starts life drinking milk. After that, it’s all up for grabs.”
- Bee Wilson, award-winning food writer, historian and author [1]

Raising a healthy eater

I knew when my son was born that we wanted to raise a healthy child. It seems today that there are so many kids with food allergies, behavioral issues and an increase in childhood obesity. As a parent, I did not want to teach my child a learned behavior that would harm him. So as he grew we made sure that our entire family, and there lies the secret, ate clean foods and green foods.

Anyone with a child knows the frustration and challenge of getting a child to eat their veggies. So of course, we had to come up with creative ways to get him to like healthy foods. It’s part of being a parent.

As a 10-year-old, our son eats very adult foods and vegetables and he understands why they are good for him. But like many other families, we could have chosen another path, an easier path.

Food or poison?

Imagine eating a steak wrapped in bacon. Imagine the smell, the taste and how it makes you feel. This feeling has been learned and programmed. Every commercial you see that extols the joy of bacon is playing on two factors. One, you probably recall mornings as a child at home with bacon sizzling on the stove. Two, you definitely have been programmed by big food companies to play on those emotions and crave bacon. Yet we all know that bacon is loaded with saturated fat, nitrates and useless calories that will cause health issues. It’s all in how you choose to perceive the sight and smell.

At the most basic level, we have to learn what is food and what is poison. We have to learn how to satisfy our hunger and also when to stop eating.

Stop for a moment and think about how heavily we have been marketed foods that are bad for us. “In 2010, two consumer scientists argued that the taste preferences of childhood provided a new way of thinking about the causes of obesity. They noted a ‘self-perpetuating cycle’ of food companies pushing foods high in sugar, fat, and salt, which means that children learn to like them, and so the companies invent ever more of these foods that contribute to unhealthy eating habits [1].”

It’s almost like we are no longer taught by our parents. Instead the for-profit food companies peddle inexpensive and nutrient-free products that we have been essentially programed to crave.

Take a look around; at your co-workers and your patients. The evidence is right in front of you. We have become a nation of overweight people barely surviving on foods that harm us instead of using food to heal us.

Understanding how and why we eat

There has been no time in recent history that the abundance and convenience of sugary foods and beverages has been so accessible. Everyone likes to blame the lack of activity on obesity and disease, but most disease and obesity comes from the constant refined sugars and nutrient-free foods that we are exposed to.

As grandma always said, “eat your veggies.” Being mindful of what we eat and why we eat it can do wonders for changing how we perceive food. Ask yourself these questions about any food:

  • What can this food item do for me?
  • Is it a healing food or a harming food?
  • Are you making that particular choice from a factor you cannot control, like stress or fatigue or have you been unintentionally programmed to eat dangerous foods?

There are two primary reasons you crave bad food.

1. Stress eating

When stressed your brain sends out an interesting chemical signal — Cortisol — that makes you crave foods that you really do not want or need. The stressor is often work, family or financial. The stressor and its chemical signal make you crave sugar.

2. Fatigue eating

The really interesting brain response is when you are fatigued. The restricted-sleep brain reacts to food stimuli as though it were food deprived. My experience and belief is that just about all first responders are in a chronic state of fatigue. This response can play some nasty tricks on how you perceive food, especially inflammatory causing foods. Fatigue and its consequences make you crave fat.

How to eat better

As I am fond of saying, “eat clean, eat green, drink lots of water and eat natural foods unaltered by man.” This means lean meats, whole grains, colorful foods — the darker the better and healthy fats from nuts, avocado and lean meats.

Portion control

We were programmed to overeat. “Clean your plate” has escaped the mouths of parents for generations. This has helped create generations of overeaters, which is compounded by two factors.

1. We are always served more than one portion of food.

2. The food we are served is often sugar based, starchy and not particularly healthy.

Don’t believe me? A chicken breast — grilled of course — is two meals of protein and the fries or loaded potato are the equivalent of 10 to 12 sugar cubes!

Slow down

Plus, you work as a first responder. How fast can you eat?

It takes your stomach 12 minutes to tell your brain that you are full and we all know how much and how fast you can eat in 12 minutes.

Save half for later

Eat half of what you are given or served. Save the other half of the meal to eat three hours later when you will be hungry again.


Use smaller plates, eat slower when off duty and always eat the dark colored veggies first before the other stuff. That’s what your body needs to heal and perform.

The reason that many find it hard to eat healthily is that we never learned anything different. Like children, most of us eat what we like and we only like what we know.

Never before have humans learned — or mislearned — to eat where calorie-dense food was so abundant and policed with so few norms about portion sizes and the harmful effects of the food you eat.

The bottom line is to re-think and re-engineer how we look at food. Try new things void of the pre-conceived notion that it won’t taste good or what others will perceive if you eat healthy. There are more healthy options now than there have been in years at regular and fast food restaurants. Food should heal, not harm, while making you feel good at the same time.


  1. Wilson, B. First Bite: How We Learn To Eat

Bryan Fass, ATC, LAT, CSCS, EMT-P (ret.), dedicated over a decade to changing the culture of EMS from one of pain, injury and disease, to one of ergonomic excellence and provider wellness. He leveraged his 15-year career in sports medicine, athletic training, spine rehabilitation, strength and conditioning and as a paramedic to become an expert on prehospital patient handling/equipment handling and fire-EMS fitness. His company, Fit Responder, works nationally with departments to reduce injuries and improve fitness for first responders.

Bryan passed away in September, 2019, leaving a legacy of contributions to EMS health and fitness, safety and readiness.