From firefighter to nutritionist: tackling obesity in the fire service

A former frontline firefighter, Greg Lessons is the first full-time nutritionist to be employed by a fire and rescue service

A firefighter for 17 years, Greg Lessons developed an innovative healthy eating programme for London Fire Brigade that lowered BMI and reduced waistlines. Now the first full-time nutritionist to be employed by a fire and rescue service, he was last year awarded ‘Nutritionist of the Year’ by the Caroline Walker Trust, and here explains how his work is making a difference.

After 17 years as a firefighter, I knew that some of my colleagues, as can often be the case with frontline and shift workers, did not have the healthiest of eating habits.

A previous UK-wide study had revealed that 66% of firefighters were classed as overweight. Other recent research has placed firefighters at elevated risk of coronary heart disease and heart attacks caused by exposure to excessive heat whilst fighting fires. It therefore became obvious to me that the modifiable risk factors of being overweight and obese needed to be addressed.

I returned to academia in 2015 to study for an MSc in human nutrition. This included specialist modules in public health nutrition and sports nutrition. This was the perfect blend of subject areas to prepare for my future role, as firefighters have similar nutritional demands to athletes because of having to be prepared to execute physically demanding tasks under extreme pressure in adverse conditions. As such, they can be considered as “industrial athletes” – and I approach firefighter nutrition with this in mind.

My MSc dissertation research involved a face-to-face dietary and lifestyle education programme alongside the environmental modification of fire station food.

The pilot trial significantly lowered BMI, body fat percentage, total energy intake, and several other key dietary variables for the firefighters who took part, and 20% saw a reduction in their waist circumference.

This significantly reduced their risk of suffering several chronic diseases. The intervention was well received by all participants. Firefighters were thanking me for putting them on a healthier path, expressing how much better they were feeling.

First worksite nutrition-based intervention for firefighters

My study was the first in the UK to deliver a worksite nutrition-based intervention for firefighters to improve health and reduce obesity.

In April 2018, I was detached from my professional duties as a firefighter to work as the first ever full-time nutritionist in any fire brigade.

A seven-month extension of the intervention pilot trial yielded similar results over a larger sample of approximately 300 firefighters. The decision was then made to enhance the London Fire Brigade nutrition programme via a PhD research programme, funded by the Public Health Nutrition Research Group at London Metropolitan University.

This ongoing work is building upon my preceding MSc work via the development and integration of innovative tools for the specific assessment of firefighter nutritional status.

It also involves pioneering dietary intervention components, such as fire station kitchen-based cookery workshops for groups of mess-managers (firefighters who purchase and cook for their watch/team).

This involves me demonstrating practical methods of putting nutrition theory into practice, and is being very well received by mess-managers and their watches who are benefiting from healthier meals being served on duty.

The PhD programme has been endorsed by Dr Fiona Twycross, the deputy mayor for London for fire and resilience, as well as by members of the London Assembly and the chief executive of the Nutrition Society, all of whom recognise the importance of this work.

Rollout of periodic fitness testing

The outcomes from the PhD study will be available in early 2021 and will inform how the London Fire Brigade’s firefighter nutrition programme can be efficiently rolled out as a low cost, low burden, effective intervention.

This work fits perfectly with the wider London Fire Brigade wellbeing plan, especially as periodic fitness testing is just beginning to be rolled out. Improving the nutritional status of the workforce is inextricably linked with occupational fitness. This will also benefit other organisations – and occupational health practitioners – who will be able to learn from the methods and outcomes.

The main part of my role currently entails visiting various fire stations and delivering a developed version of the intervention. This involves group-based nutrition education, assessment of diets and foods being eaten on shift and individual nutrition consultations for firefighters. This enables the delivery of an effective personalised nutrition approach. Overall, the intervention programme is being very well received by staff of all levels.

Additional work includes holding seminars, clinics and developing educational materials for various departments within the brigade. This includes:

  • nutrition consultation drop-in clinics for women firefighters;
  • interventions to help the more sedentary areas of the workforce, for example the emergency call centre operators and admin teams;
  • seminars and lectures for fire safety inspection officers;
  • educational literature creation for the LFB Menopause Action Group;
  • nutrition educational content development for the LFB health and wellbeing intranet portal; and
  • regularly answering nutrition questions from LFB staff via email.

Links between nutrition and mental health

Beyond all this, I recently created and delivered a lecture at brigade headquarters on nutrition and mental health.

Dealing with the situations that firefighters face can have a huge impact on mental health, so I consider this to be a particularly important piece of work. This work also complements LFB’s wider mental health initiatives, including the planned rollout of mental health first aid practitioners at fire stations.

In all, I’d argue that my unique combination of experience as a firefighter, mess-manager, and expertise in this area of nutrition creates important rapport with the firefighters, gaining their trust as I know intimately the stressors and demands that are placed upon firefighters and the complex relationship this has with nutrition.

These are some of the factors that have facilitated the success of the programme. My work within London Fire Brigade has recently received the highest recognition from the Caroline Walker Trust, which awarded me “Nutritionist of the Year 2019”.

This, alongside the support I receive from the London Fire Brigade, London Metropolitan University and the daily messages of gratitude and encouragement from firefighters, fuels my fire to work even harder to make the London Fire Brigade nutrition programme a world-class system.

It is envisaged this work, along with other London Fire Brigade wellbeing initiatives, will be instrumental in establishing a workplace/occupational health culture change and result in widespread improved health outcomes, reduced sickness absence and, ultimately, ultimately save lives.

Greg Lessons is nutritionist at London Fire Brigade

References

Munir F et al (2012). “Overweight and obesity in UK firefighters”. Occupational Medicine, vol 62, Issue 5, pp363-365, available from: https://academic.oup.com/occmed/article/62/5/362/1490680

“Firefighters and coronary heart disease: a brief history on research and analysis”. Fire Engineering, December 2019. Available from: https://www.fireengineering.com/2019/12/06/481913/firefighters-and-coronary-heart-disease-a-brief-history-on-research-and-analysis/#gref

One Response to From firefighter to nutritionist: tackling obesity in the fire service

  1. Avatar
    Bev Cornish Occ Health 27 Apr 2020 at 5:54 pm #

    AWESOME !!!!
    This approach definitely works !!!

Leave a Reply