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Eating for Health and Nutrition

COPSWest, sponsored by the California Peace Officers’ Association, has become one of the noted annual meetings in law enforcement. Held each year at the Ontario Convention Center, the conference focuses on the newest and brightest in equipment, vehicles, supervisory leadership policies, and methodologies. But none of those things will benefit you if you aren’t at your best physically and mentally.

So this year’s conference started with the basics—how to eat right and enhance your personal fitness and stamina so that you are fit to work efficiently and to enjoy your off-duty time.

Helping guide the way was Irene Franklin, M.S., a nutrition scientist and health educator.

She explained that food, and its nutrients, are needed daily to fuel the body, build, repair and maintain body tissues, and regulate body processes. Energy comes from the carbohydrates, proteins and fats we eat. The carbohydrates fuel the body. The proteins assist in muscle growth and repair, are vital for red blood cell production, and help create the hormones and enzymes we need for regulating the body’s functions. The fats are essential for nutrition, gluconeogenesis (fueling the body and regulating it), protecting organs, and transporting nutrients around the body. But the fat must be the “right” kind—with less than 10 percent of the daily intake from the saturated fats (primarily found in animal sources, palm and palm kernel oil, coconut oil, and cocoa butter).

Franklin said eating right can easily become a habit, but the start must be made. Giving thought to what is being eaten is vital. To that end, resources such as,,, and are good starting points, where your caloric needs can be calculated and where you can learn the foods and balances you need to achieve the right nutrition.

The MyPyramid website recommends 6-11 servings of complex carbohydrates, 2-3 servings of fruit, 2-3 servings of vegetables, 2-3 servings of dairy products, and 0.8 kg protein each day. There may also be “sparing use” of added fats and sugars.

Franklin recommended that half of your grain intake should be whole grains such as whole wheat flour, breads and rolls, oatmeal, brown rice, and bulgur. Most refined grains, she said, are enriched, but that means the grain is processed, then the nutrients of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate are added back to the grain. The processing also eliminates the fiber of the grain. Eating whole grains is vital to getting the full nutritive value and fiber of the grain. She recommended reading package labels to determine whether whole grain is used, and in what quantity. Ingredients are listed by weight so if they are the most prevalent or the most dense, they will be higher in the list of ingredients. Remember, too, that you must check what is considered a “serving size” of the food.

If you’re not used to the taste of whole grains, you can increase your intake of whole grains by adding whole grain pasta in with your regular pasta, or brown rice with your white rice. You can also snack on whole grain cereals. Franklin said, “Eat a rainbow” of vegetables. Think of your vegetables by color and try to have a variety of colors each day. “No one food possesses everything we need to eat,” she said. Different vegetables have different vitamins and minerals. Vegetables are low in fat and calories, but they are nutrient dense. Whether raw, cooked, frozen, canned, dehydrated, or made into juice, vegetables offer many nutrients, but especially vitamins A and C, folate, iron, and magnesium. Franklin added that if you snack on vegetables, eat something from the “good” fats (for example, low fat string cheese) so that the nutrients in the vegetables get absorbed, not eliminated. Aim for 2½ cups of raw or cooked vegetables each day. Two cups of raw, leafy greens equals one cup of vegetable.

Fruit, said Franklin, also needs to be considered in a “rainbow” of colors for your variety, and should also be eaten with a meal, or with good fats, if eaten as a snack. Eat 2 cups of fruit each day. A quarter cup of dried fruit equals a half cup of whole fruit.

Vegetables and fruits are rich in the antioxidants needed by your body.

She pointed out that calcium is one of the vital minerals to have each day. Along with potassium and vitamin D, calcium helps maintain bone mass. Dairy products are a good source of calcium, but use low fat versions. Lactose free dairy products are available for those who are lactose intolerant. Green and green, leafy vegetables also provide calcium, but she said it takes a large volume of such vegetables to equal the calcium more easily found in dairy products. Aim for 3 cups of dairy products each day.

Lean protein is essential for good nutrition, and she recommended trimming the white, visible fat from meat, and peeling away the skin of chicken or other fowl after cooking. Meat should be broiled, grilled, roasted, poached or boiled, and the fat should be drained off during cooking. Omit high fat sauces, toppings and gravies. Vary your choices among the meat proteins to include lean beef, chicken, pork, fish, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. She cautioned that nuts and seeds are nutrient dense so portion size must be monitored. One ounce of meat, poultry or fish equals ¼ cup cooked dry beans or peas, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, and ½ ounce of nuts or seeds. “Be aware of what a portion is,” Franklin advised. One cup is about the size of a baseball or your fist. One teaspoon is about the size of the tip of your thumb. A tablespoon is equal to three thumb tips. Think of six playing dice—that’s the amount in 1½ ounces of natural cheese, and eight dice equals 2 ounces of processed cheese—either of which is also equivalent to one cup of milk. Three ounces of cooked meat, fish or poultry equals the size and thickness of a deck of playing cards or the palm of your hand.

“Portion distortion” is problem in American diets today, Franklin said. Portion sizes at restaurants, and even at home, have become larger—and so have people! Just 100 extra calories a day can lead to a whopping weight gain of 10 pounds in a year. Yesterday’s fast food hamburger was 330 calories, but now the average one equals 590 calories. The small muffin of yesterday was 210 calories, but today’s version is 500 calories. That box of popcorn you ate at yesterday’s movie house was 270 calories, but today’s version is 630 calories. Also a problem is the amount of sodium (salt) in food. “It’s in everything!” said Franklin.

She recommends controlling portions by picturing your dinner plate and filling half of it with fruits and vegetables, one-fourth of it with proteins, and one-fourth of it with good carbohydrates/grains.

“Most people have a discretionary allowance of 100-300 calories a day,” she said. That gives you a little leeway to indulge in more from a certain food group, or to enjoy something sweet and special on occasion. “But be aware!” she warned. “Use caution not to overspend your discretionary allowance.” Sweets and indulgences should be a part of your diet, to give you satisfaction and enjoyment, but they should be treats only, and eaten only occasionally. “Balance it out throughout the week,” she advised, enjoying treats, but watching those portions. For example, a service of ice cream should be a half cup. “A fat free diet is not good because you don’t feel full,” she added.

Snacks and food on the go are important parts of many people’s day, she said. Pre-plan your snacks and package them up on your days off so they’re ready to grab when you’re heading out the door for work. Good snacks include low fat string cheese, air-popped popcorn, baked chips, hummus and pita, low fat cottage cheese or yogurt with fruit, unsweetened, dry, whole grain cereal, low fat hot chocolate packet, pretzel sticks, trail mix with nuts and dried fruit, fat free pudding, low fat chips and salsa, low fat energy bars, flavored water, smoothies, celery with peanut butter and raisins or other dried fruit (kids call this “ants on a log”), and whole grain crackers with low fat cheese or peanut butter. Good beverages are low fat milk, 100 percent fruit juice, and, of course, water. Aim for 100-200 calorie snacks.

Snacks help you stabilize your blood sugar and metabolism over the day, which helps you avoid headaches, fatigue, drowsiness in the last part of your workday, and poor sleep overnight. Snacks also help you control cravings and the temptation to overeat.

If you are having a post-workout/recovery snack, have low fat chocolate milk, yogurt with a cup of fruit and serving of crackers, low or no sugar cereal with ½ glass of low fat milk and ½ of a banana, and, again, water.

“Small, frequent meals stabilize your blood sugar through the day,” she said. Make your own lunch of low fat cheese quesadillas, chicken, tuna or egg salad with pita bread, hardboiled eggs, hot, homemade soup, pasta salad with vegetables, a sandwich on whole-wheat bread/bagel/English muffin, peanut butter and jelly, salad with black beans or chicken and a light dressing, a turkey, ham, or roast beef sandwich on whole grain bread, or vegetable or low fat cheese pizza. Also include such fruits and vegetables as dried raisins, cranberries or plums without added sugar, raw vegetables with low fat dressing, melon slices, an orange, apple, pear, peach, nectarine or banana, strawberries, blueberries, or snack size, unsweetened apple sauce.

“Don’t skip meals!” Franklin cautioned. Skipping meals leads to decreased energy, lower protein intake, and overeating later. Even if you are concerned about your weight, eat small meals and nutritious snacks, and eat breakfast. The adage that it is the most important meal of the day is true. “It is, literally, breaking the fast from not eating all night when you were sleeping,” she said. Breakfast can be such foods as eggs, oatmeal with berries, raisins or other fruit, low fat milk, 6-8 ounces of plain, low fat yogurt with granola, whole wheat English muffin with peanut butter, lean meat such as ham or turkey on half of a whole wheat bagel, toasted whole grain waffle with fresh fruit, or even last night’s leftovers. “Don’t limit yourself to the breakfast food traditions,” she said. Other foods are okay, if they’re nutritious and if you would enjoy them for a breakfast.

Eating out? Do a little homework online first, Franklin recommended. Look up the restaurant or fast food place, check the nutritional information and decide on the simpler foods or the ones you can have prepared the way you want them. Plan what you’ll eat and how much you’ll leave behind (or bring home for another meal). Eat a simple snack before you go. Order a la carte, not a complete dinner. If you eat an appetizer, choose one that is low fat, such as a salad or broth (not cream) soup. Avoid anything that is crispy, breaded, creamed, deep-fried, pan-fried or sautéed. Get your sauces, dressings and gravies on the side and use them sparingly. Side dishes of vegetables and potatoes should be steamed, boiled, baked or roasted, with no added fat. For dessert, choose a sherbet or share that special dessert with someone else. In Italian restaurants, go for the pasta with tomato sauce (marinara), not the cream sauces. If you choose fast food, go for the healthier options that are offered. Choose milk or juice, not soda. Eat grilled food, not fried food. Share those fries with someone else. Skip the mayonnaise and use BBQ flavor, salsa or mustard. Ask for extra vegetables on your sandwich. At Chinese restaurants, get dishes that have been stir fried, boiled or steamed, not fried. At Mexican restaurants, choose lean meat or chicken dishes and substitute a salad for those refried beans and rice side dishes. Avoid sour cream and cheese toppings. At the deli, have a turkey, ham or tuna sandwich with mustard, not mayonnaise, and avoid the meatballs, sausages, and lunch meats.

Franklin also offered these tips: avoid Gatorade or Vitamin Water because they are both too high in sugar. Choose iced tea, herbal tea or hot tea without much sugar or milk. Avoid artificial sweeteners because the body doesn’t recognize the chemicals that make them up. “The body should be able to recognize what you’re eating—food,” she said, “not chemicals.” Limit your intake of caffeine and alcohol. “You just don’t feel full after beverages,” she said, so it’s better to eat a nutritious snack with 100 percent juice or milk. Don’t eat after your supper if you are trying to lose weight.

Fitness is certainly about good nutrition, but there’s also the element of exercise. Franklin said the new buzzword in fitness is “functional fitness” or looking at exercise as a means of integrating all the muscles for activity, balance and strength. She said you don’t need fancy equipment to get and keep fit. You can use your own body weight to promote functional fitness.

She gave some easy examples of exercises to do, some of which can be done during a break at work, or even at your desk.

Single leg squats, ten times on each side, have you supporting your body weight on one leg and increasing your muscle strength and balance. Extend one leg forward, a little off the ground, and squat with your supporting leg. Rise and repeat. Don’t let the knee of your supporting leg extend over the toes of that leg.

“Genie twists” can be done while seated. Hold your arms chest high in front of you, your right arm resting atop your left, your right hand on your left elbow, and the top of your left hand touching the underside of your right elbow (think of Jeannie’s pose on the old “I Dream of Jeannie” show, when she was about to work magic). Sit up straight on the edge of your chair, both feet flat on the floor, about hip width apart, your stomach pulled in tightly. Gently and slowly turn to the right, then back to center, then to the left. Repeat 10 times. The stretch opens your back, and works your transverse abdominal muscles. This exercise, Franklin said, also helps prevent injuries from bending and twisting.

“The rocking chair” can also be done at your desk. It works your rectus abdominus muscles. Sit up straight on the edge of your chair, feet hip width apart and flat on the floor. Hold both arms straight out in front of you, one hand atop the other. Gently lean backwards, keeping your stomach muscles pulled in and your back straight, then lean forward, rocking back and forth, keeping your hands and arms as level as possible. Repeat 10 times.

“Stand ups” are great for large muscle activity, she said, which translates to increased respiration and exercise for your heart. Sit comfortably on the edge of your chair, feet flat and almost hip width apart. Get up and down off the chair without using your hands to assist. Aim for 15 repetitions. “You are lifting your own weight,” said Franklin, “and that brings your breathing and heart rate up.”

You must also add in at least 30 minutes a day of moderate intensity exercise. “It needn’t be consecutive,” she said. Five or 10 minutes of walking, using the stairs, or aerobic exercising is good. “Take the far parking place; use the stairs,” she said. Look for opportunities to add up your activity to those 30 minutes a day. Also try to get at least 20 minutes of vigorous activity at least three days a week. “Be sure it’s something you enjoy,” she said. It could be walking, hiking, biking, swimming, dancing, roller skating, ice skating—even vigorous housework. “People like variety in activity,” she said. A pedometer can help you see if you’re getting the recommended 10,000 steps per day.

Law enforcement work presents its own challenges to fitness, Franklin said, including shift work, irregular schedules or overtime, eating on the go, fast food and vending machine temptations, and time factors. Prepare in advance for meeting such challenges so you get fit and keep fit through good nutrition and exercise.

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., J.D., writes in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at


Published in Law and Order, Sep 2009

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