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Survey of firefighters shows benefits of restricted eating during a 24-hour shift

San Diego battalion chief David Picone has been a firefighter for 25 years. He was the department’s point man on a survey that examined how a restricted eating schedule impacted the cardiovascular health of firefighters.

He said if you believe that people who work at all hours have to eat at all hours, this study proved that is not true.

“When you’re on a 24-hour shift you might get another three or four calls in the evening and you feel like, 'Maybe I need to eat something to have more energy,'” Picone said. “But the study showed that it’s completely opposite. You actually get more tired and less healthy by eating at those odd hours.”

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Time restricted eating often means only eating within a 10-hour window each day, and fasting for 14 hours. It has shown health benefits among many people. But it’s been unclear whether it’s practical or even feasible to impose that restriction on shift workers, like firefighters, nurses and late night service employees.

Which is a problem, since people who do shift work are very vulnerable to health problems.

“Shift work is known to be associated with increased risk of many chronic diseases, including mental health issues, cardiometabolic disease and anything related to inflammation,” said Emily Manoogian, a staff scientist at the Salk Institute and the lead author of the study, published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

“So for example, the World Health Organization even lists shift work as a carcinogen,” she said.

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For shift workers, getting enough sleep is a concern and the body’s circadian rhythms are disrupted. However it helps if you maintain an eating schedule that conforms to a 10 hour window, and takes place between about 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. That’s what 137 San Diego firefighters did, and the results were reductions in both blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

“In the overall group what we saw was that this was tolerated, it was safe, they had improvements in quality of life measures and in a specific type of bad cholesterol called VLDL,” said UC San Diego cardiologist Pam Taub, a co-author of the study.

“Shift work isn’t going away,” Taub said. “It’s a really important part of society. It’s what keeps so many things functioning well. So within the confines of shift work, we need to come up with better strategies to optimize the health of our shift workers, and that includes time restricted eating.”

Chief Picone said both the control group and the study group of firefighters ate a Mediterranean diet. Some health benefits may have come from that, but it wasn’t because they were eating any less than they had been. It was a matter of when they were eating, not how much.

“It wasn’t that they were dieting. They were eating the same amount of food that they would normally spread throughout the day, in an 11-hour window,” Picone said. “So just by doing that, they still lost weight and they still had better outcomes.”

Chief Picone said most firefighters don’t typically die in the line of duty. They commonly die from cancer, heart disease or suicide. He hopes the study is getting the word out and will result in better health among the people he calls his brothers and sisters, in fire brigades throughout the country.

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