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Code 7

Your on-the-job food choices could be as hazardous to your health as any violent offender.

July 01, 2002  |  by - Also by this author

To get through his shift, the police officer working days relies on a repertoire that includes training, experience, and a vested interest in things bulletproof. To keep his energy level up and his waistline down, he brings food from home or sits down to a nice lunch in a local eatery. It's easy for him to eat right and stay fit.

His nocturnal counterpart isn't so lucky. Oh, sure, she practices good officer safety tactics, verbal judo, and says her prayers. But she doesn't have the luxury of patronizing ideal eating establishments. She's lucky just to find an after hours drive-thru. And when it comes to late night eats, the usual suspects include regional and national chains slinging burgers, tacos, chicken, and pizza-with nary a veggie burger on the menu. That's too bad. For when one is faced with the omnipresent possibility of having to literally eat and run, there's a pretty strong case to be made for avoiding heartburn and heart attacks.

Of course, you don't have to work the late shift or even work the streets for a cop's lifestyle and eating habits to add up to obesity, high blood pressure, and other coronary risk factors. Even cops with choice assignments who work ideal hours and enjoy a wonderful rapport with local restaurants eat too much, eat the wrong things, and exercise too little, leaving them susceptible to heart attacks, both on-duty and off.

The job gives most cops very little time to sit down and enjoy a meal without interruption. Consequently, many officers have no choice but to grab fast-food fare from a drive-thru.

Unfortunately, they have a lot of company. A recent American Medical Association study estimates that 300,000 Americans die each year from obesity-related causes, such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Experts have shown that up to 50 percent of all cancers are related to our diets. The tale of the tape sizes it up like this: In 1991, one in eight Americans was obese. In 1999, the number had increased to one in five. In short, even a good many of our more vocal critics can be called "pigs," too.

"Super Size That?"

The ready availability of fast food has a lot to do with our expanding girth and constricting arteries. A 2000 census by the National Restaurant Association counted more than 215,000 fast-food restaurants in the United States, generating sales of more than $119 billion.

To find out what cops are eating and what it's doing to them, Police made some calls to a number of departments nationwide. The following is a cross-section of cops from across the country talking about their favorite fast-food joints.

Dean Sorenson, a sergeant with the Dallas Police Department, notes, "There are about a gazillion fast-food places to get your daily dose of artery-clogging, cholesterol-filled, heart attack-in-a sack food source, but I think my favorite is Wendy's for the burgers, What-A-Burger for its shakes, and Dairy Queen for its Blizzards."

The Big n’ Tasty combo at McDonald’s is 1,080 calories, 58 grams of fat, 14.5 grams of saturated fat, and 1,320 miligrams of sodium. The best advice if you must have this is eat it without cheese. Turning this into a cheeseburger adds 50 calories, 5 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, and 240 miligrams of sodium.

For the St. Paul (Minn.) Police Department, it's a little different according to Officer Glenn Norstrem. "Most of the officers avoid the true fast-food places like McDonald's and Burger King. Those places usually are a last resort. Of the two, I prefer Burger King. Nearly everyone I know eats at local restaurants and non-chain pizza joints most of the time. The one chain that probably gets the most business is Subway."

When it comes to Southern hospitality, Atlanta cop Dan King says, "We mostly eat at the major fast-food chains. As you know, call volumes across the country are rising and we only have time for a quick meal most of the day. Midnight shift eats at either the Waffle King or the Waffle House. Not by choice, but it's all that's open when they get down time."

McDonald's also enjoys what little monopoly there is when it comes to fast foods in Boston. But don't go opening any franchises yet. According to 24-year veteran John Tracey, most Boston cops bring their own food.

While LAPD's André BeLotto is similarly disciplined and generally abstains from fast foods, he admits a partiality for Taco Bell "for their quick and tasty double decker tacos." André is not alone. When it comes to lesser evils, Officer Scott Houghton, a 16- year vet with the Denver Police Department, also sees Taco Bell as his choice. But Scott says such excursions are rare, and when he does make a run for the border, it's usually for a chicken burrito. Scott says he tries to watch his weight and keep his cholesterol down.

The Stress Factor

Barbara Brehm-Curtis, a nutritionist and writer, applauds the culinary discipline of officers who skip fast food for healthier fare or try to choose the healthiest fast food when nothing else is available-especially given the nature of law enforcement. "With the stressors that come with the job, the last thing a cop needs to do is to tax his already overburdened heart further," Brehm-Curtis observes. "Stress can increase blood cholesterol levels in many ways. Feeling stressed increases the fight-or-flight response, which can increase blood fat levels. This is OK in moderation, but chronic fight or flight is not OK. Stress can also contribute to overeating (in an attempt to reduce stress), which causes weight gain and elevated cholesterol."

Arby’s Market Fresh roast turkey and swiss sandwich, Curly Fries, and a Jamocha shake totals 1,540 calories, 63 grams of fat, 16.5 grams of saturated fat, 3,070 miligrams of sodium. Dropping the shake cuts 470 calories, 15 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat, and 380 miligrams of sodium.

Cholesterol and its effect on the body is often much misunderstood by the average American, Brehm-Curtis says. "In foods, all cholesterol is the same. In your blood, there is good and bad cholesterol. LDL is bad, HDL is good. To increase HDL, be a premenopausal woman, choose your parents well (so you have good genes), lose weight if you are overweight, exercise almost daily, and eat less saturated and trans-fatty acids."

Trans-fatty acids and saturated fats are the real health villains in most fast foods. Fortunately, some fast-food establishments are trying to clean up their act and their clients' arteries. When the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently rated fast-food chains for compliance with dietary guidelines, low-fat items like Long John Silver's baked fish, Wendy's reduced-calorie salad dressings, Arby's roasted chicken breast, and Wendy's multi-grain bun all garnered praise. The CSPI also lauded a switch from breading and frying fish to baking it, thereby creating a nearly 60-percent calorie count reduction. Increasingly, many fast-food chains are offering "healthy choice" menus.

At the same time, Brehm-Curtis notes, "Most menus have better or worse items on them. It's not usually the menu that is 'good' or 'bad,' it's the choices the officer makes. Habitual meals have an especially strong impact. For example, if every morning for breakfast, the officer has a donut and coffee, this will have a much stronger impact than one donut (pastry) every month or so. So, those daily choices are really important."

Fat content is another important consideration.

"While no fat is 'bad' in proper amounts, Americans tend to eat too much saturated fats (found in meats and high-fat dairy products: butter, cream, cheese, whole milk, ice cream) and trans-fatty acids, found in processed foods such as baked goods," Brehm-Curtis says. "In general, you will be healthier if you avoid being overweight, exercise regularly, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Some fats are good for you (unless they cause weight gain): nuts, avocados, sunflower seeds, and fish. Sedentary lifestyles kill as many people each year as smoking. Exercise is not an option. Exercise reduces stress, depression, and anxiety, and it increases vigor. It improves your sex life. It prevents heart attack, stroke, some kinds of cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and hypertension."

Taco Bell’s Supreme Combo is 670 calories, 32 grams of fat, 12 grams of saturated fat, and 1,470 miligrams of sodium, not including drink.

Brehm-Curtis advocates eating more fiber and fresh fruits and vegetables. "The most common problems in the U.S. diet are a dearth of fruits and vegetables. So when looking at menus and making choices, look for opportunities to consume more fruits and vegetables. These are the foods that help prevent heart disease, cancer, obesity, and other diet-related illnesses. An adult should try to consume two to four servings of fruit and three to five servings of vegetables a day. This may take some planning."

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