It is nearly midnight - about five hours into a twelve-hour shift. I am standing at the local "Stop and Rob" (convenience store) as one of my shift partners strolls in. He grabs two 20 ounce Red Bull drinks from the cooler and a container of Pepcid AC. "What's up with that?" I ask.
It seems that the new kid on the team got himself tied up on a BS arrest a couple of hours back. By the time he cleared up the paper all of the local eateries were closed. The prospect of facing the rest of the shift without food is daunting. So, he is grabbing a couple of these caffeine-laden kings. The Pepcid AC is for the heartburn that will inevitably follow a short time later.
Allow me to digress. I am a dinosaur, by any measures. I have socks in my dresser drawer that are older than some of the young guys on the crew. To be sure, I am no smarter than they. In fact, the young ones coming up now seem to border on being genius. I am confident that our future is in very good hands. However, I have had some experiences that they have yet to encounter. Long ago, I graduated from the school of hard knocks. The purpose of this writing is NOT to preach. I only hope to give the younger ones among us something to consider. Take from it what helps and throw the rest away.
When I was at the front-end of my career, I did not see how every choice, every step, every meal and every workout would remain part of who I am forever. Together, they would ultimately shape me - either in a way that improved or diminished what I have become today. My body composition was almost totally a result of how much food I ate and equally important, the types of foods I ate.
Back when I was in school, it was fashionable to smoke. With some pride, I avoided picking up the habit all through high school. However, by my second year of college, I had become a regular customer of the tobacco industry.
In my twenties and thirties, I can recall some of my favorite lunch meals. The best was a steak sandwich on a large roll slathered in butter. On the side was a large order of French fries and the meal was launched with a tossed salad swimming in extra Bleu Cheese dressing. Just perfect, eh?
I figured that I was young. I could do whatever I wanted because I could recover from anything, right? No so fast.
When I turned forty, I tipped the scale at nearly 300 pounds. My cigarette habit had grown to three packs a day! At today's price for smokes, I would have gone broke. (sigh)
It has been a long road back. I am only going to make that journey once.
I Am Not The Only One
Here are some short stories about three of my buddies.
Pal #1 - One of my first training officers thought the best way to choose a place to eat during the shift was determined by how big a discount the owner gave to cops. Anything free was perfect. More often than not, we wound up at the drive through window at McDonald’s. I remember standing near him at inspection one day. His 44 inch belt stretched around him like a length of string crimping link sausage in the middle.
Pal #2 - A close buddy of mine graduated from the academy well able to complete the daily six mile run. He was in the best shape of his life. He went to work in a very small department in southeast Michigan. Being the FNG (Fabulous New Guy), he was stuck on midnights for an eternity.
From time-to-time, he would lament about his struggle to get to the gym regularly. The village where he worked became a ghost-town by about 9:00PM every night. So, in the middle of his eight hour shift (which started at 11:00PM), there was no place to eat, other than the snack shelf in the convenience store in the gas station.
He called me one day after about three years on. He had gained fifty pounds of blubber around his middle since graduation. He was determined to do something about it - and he did.
Pal #3 - Last week, I connected with one of the new friends that I have made since my move to Florida. He works midnights in a very small affluent community just up the road. They work twelves: 6:00PM to 6:00AM. In his town too, the number of places to eat is very limited.
He was recounting how since we had attended the lateral academy together, his weight had swelled. In recent weeks, he has been on a very aggressive exercise regimen coupled with an eating plan that nearly eliminates carbohydrates. He told me that he knew what to do because he had done it many times before.
"Huh?" was my reaction. He told me that over his career he has seen his weight swell by 30% at which point he would go on a drastic program to take it off. He had repeated this process four times, or so. Each time, he seems to gain more weight back than he had lost.
Too often, we hear of coppers who have retired only to die before scratching the surface of the pension they'd worked so hard to earn. There is a constant barrage of articles, books and videos having the stated goal of teaching a cop to make it safely through his career. Getting to retirement in one piece, with your health, seems to be the goal. Realistically, that is NOT the goal. The REAL goal is to make it to and through the career and on into whatever you decide will be next. Achieving that long-term goal is where you need to put your focus.
What we do in the early years will directly affect the quality of the years that follow. I would bet that you have known someone who played college football and by the time they are in their forties, their knees are giving out on them.
As a gym rat myself, I have run into a fair share of middle-aged guys who worked out like maniacs when they were in their teens and twenties. Often, they were power-lifters. In most every case, their drive for more weight caused them to throw good form out the window. They pay for it in spades as time goes on.
I've been working out for a couple of decades. In that time, my body has become less tolerant of stupid moves in the gym. Age does slow the recovery process. So an injury now seems to take forever to heal. I can still be a crazy-man with weights. I LOVE to workout. Today, the motto is: Work Smarter, Not Harder. It is all about good form.
Food is the body's fuel; not much different than gasoline for your car. What you really needed to know about food and diet was probably taught to you by your parents by the time you reached five years old. It is not complicated stuff - although the smart adults among us seem to make it sound much more difficult than it really is.
The connection between specific eating choices and impact on the body are more elusive. I liken it to the heavy drinker. He does not get cirrhosis of the liver from one drink - not even from many days of heavy drinking. Cirrhosis comes as a result of the cumulative effect of choices about alcohol over time.
Food choices are quite comparable. Make enough bad decisions and you will likely begin experiencing weight gain, a rise in blood pressure, possibly diabetes, even heart disease and stroke are all on the list of outcomes. Is one Red Bull or a single Twinkie going to cause all of that? Of course not, but each food choice becomes part of the structure upon which your future will be built.
Think of it this way: if you were building a house and chose to use a cheap inferior concrete in the foundation, what could you expect? Would the house fall down in the first day? Probably not. But the defective concrete would be there forever and ultimately cause the structure to fail.
Dinosaurs Step Aside
I'm not taking a shot at old guys. I am one. However, it is likely that our life's choices have already been made. Our foundations were poured long ago. Can we change? Yes. But, statistics show that it is very unlikely that we will. So, I want to focus this writing at the young coppers who are in the first half of their careers.
As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.
Recognize the symptoms:
- Are you eating the wrong stuff for the wrong reasons? When your lunch ends up being something you wolf down while standing in a 7-11 while chugging a Big Gulp, there may be a problem.
- When you find that you are drinking an energy drink (like Red Bull) more than once a week in order to finish a shift or complete some other required task, there may be a problem.
- When you are so hungry that you will eat the first food that you stumble across - even if you don't like it, there may a problem.
- When you find yourself frequently eating food that is round, food that you snatched out of a paper bag or food that someone handed you through a car window, there may be a problem.
If your mother would describe your regular pattern as being desperation eating, it is time to wake up and smell the coffee. There is almost certainly a problem.
Would you wait to look for gasoline until your car was sputtering and nearly dead on the roadside? Of course not! Then, why are you willing to do that to your body? Damage done to your personal wellbeing cannot be repaired with a mechanic's wrench.
What to Do
It starts with what is in your head. You will get in shape mentally first; then your body will follow. Making a behavior change is tough. Most people fail. Then again, most people lack the mettle and intestinal fortitude to be a cop. We are different. We fight and fight hard when the need arises. Now is the time.
Planning. Start thinking a few hours ahead of yourself when it comes to food. At the beginning of each day, think about what you expect your food intake to be like - in general terms.
Eating is critically important. You might think that skipping a meal is no big deal, right? Put it in this light: the next time the urge strikes to head for the bathroom, just skip it. Put it on hold. Wait until tomorrow. After all, if skipping a meal is OK, skipping a bathroom visit must be OK, too.
Rely on your intuition. It is quite likely that you learned all you needed to know about eating when you were very young. Phrases like: eat all of your vegetables, no snacks before dinner, only two cookies, etc. were all messages that you received from the adults in your life. It was for your own good. It still is. Listen to what your inner voice is telling you.
Avoid the extremes. Living life with moderate choices will probably be best. Having lost 100 lbs some twenty years ago (and kept it off), I have heard more stories about diets than I care to remember. There is the grapefruit and celery diet. There is the no carbohydrate diet. We must include those outfits that want to ship your meals to you by FedEx. I wonder how much that will cost for the rest of your life?
"I can't eat desserts anymore," followed by, "I gave up beer until I lose the weight," which, of course, leads to "I couldn't stand it any longer. I really blew my diet last weekend." Are phrases that you hear from dieters.
Diets don't work. They never have and they never will. The reason is simple: once the weight is lost, the diet ends and the person reverts to their old eating habits. You know where it goes from there.
Stay in the middle. Identify the foods you truly want. For me, it is peanut M&M candy. I used to eat them by the bucket-full. Now, they are a treat. I have a reasonable portion a couple of times a week. I don't feel deprived, nor do I judge that I have cheated on a diet. They are just part of my eating plan. No, I cannot have M&Ms every day. But then, I don't want them and I certainly don't need them that often.
Be sensible. You need to be hydrated. News Flash: neither Red Bull nor diet soda-pop will properly hydrate you. They are not a meal replacement, either.
When you report for work, try not to arrive starved. Have some idea of where you can get food that won't hurt you. Remember the rule about avoiding anything that is handed to you through your car window. When I report for a shift, I bring a couple of protein bars and something to drink. Some guys that I have worked with bring a small cooler.
Have a plan B for when everything else fails. On those occasions where I have screwed up by not having any food with me and I am hungry enough to eat an ox, I hit the convenience store. The choice for me: peanut M&Ms. Why? Because I like them; because the fat and protein in the nuts will take away my hunger; because the sugar and caffeine in the chocolate will give me a short term energy burst. I only get a small package because that is all I need.
Give it some thought.
If you are falling into the trap of damaging yourself with the food you eat (or failing to eat), now is the time to change. Make the change permanent. Make the change because you want the results. Each time that your hand brings food to your mouth you are affecting your body for the rest of your life.
Paying attention now will pay off in spades, later. You are not bullet-proof, nor are you invincible. Wakeup and smell the coffee.
This is about saving just one life. It may be yours.
As always your comments and questions are welcome. Just click on my name below to send an email.