This is a vital health maintenance tool. Coker recalls one firefighter whose serious risk of prostate cancer was caught early-on by the mandatory screening. Because of the quick detection, he was able to treat it successfully.
"We look at this as a very positive thing for our employees because it prevents damage to their personal health," says Coker. "It's also a positive aspect for the department in that, if you can catch and cure things early, then that does not deplete our manpower on the street.
"What a great service to offer your employees," says Coker. "What a great way to say that you're a valuable employee to us; we value your health."
Sure, some officers may seek out health information on their own, but with the challenges that come with this high-stress, unpredictable job, a little extra support can't hurt. Most departments will tell you: Success is better achieved as a team.
Parker recommends agencies interested in hiring a dietitian, either full-time or to conduct programs or in-services, contact the American Dietetic Association (ADA).Helpful tips for a fit force:
Not all agencies have high-end facilities or round-the-clock dietitians. Nevertheless, any department can design and implement fitness incentives that are suited to their needs. It is also helpful to be mindful of healthy eating tips like these, specifically geared toward law enforcement officers:Always eat breakfast
"When I first came [on the force] I was working a night shift and we had very few places open in the middle of the night," says Capt. Jim Coker of the Hoover (Alabama) Police Department. "I would end up eating breakfast three times a day. You'd eat breakfast in the middle of the night, you'd get off, go home, and your family's eating what? Breakfast. You'd go to bed and what do you eat when you wake up? Breakfast."
LAPD staff dietician Rana Parker advises officers to get into the habit of eating (a healthy) breakfast within an hour or two of when they wake, regardless of the time of the day they start.Bad food, smart choices
It can be tough to eat well if nothing but burger joints pepper your patrol. That's why Parker sometimes goes on ride-alongs to see what she's up against. "I can't tell them 'choose healthy foods' when I have no idea what their work day's like or what foods they have to choose from," she says.
A lot of convenience stores now offer more than hot dogs under heat lamps. Parker finds energy bars and lean sandwiches to be a good pick. If you're stuck at the unhealthiest restaurant in town, she recommends limiting the portions a bit as an easy way to cut a few hundred calories.
Dr. Kevin Jablonski of the LAPD reminds that taste is all in your head. "By the time you're on the department for a few years your taste buds have developed a liking for some generally unhealthy stuff. Studies suggest that foods high in sodium taste better because it stimulates our tongue, and our taste buds respond more actively to the flavors. When you sit down to eat healthy, who's in control? Is it your brain saying, 'I need to eat low-fat, high-fiber vegetables?' Or is it your taste buds going, 'Hey, that pepperoni pizza glistening with oil looks good.' It's so challenging, and the non-law enforcement population is similar."Snack wisely and plan ahead
Parker teaches officers what kinds of snacks are good to bring in the car, and what will last a few hours, should officers get stuck on a call. "One thing I always tell them is, just like they prepare for their work day with their weapons and gear, be prepared for the fact that you might not know where your next meal is coming from. Stock your car with a bottle of water, energy bars, trail mix, bananas; things like that."
To this effect, Parker has also spoken with the company that supplies the LAPD's vending machines, noting she would like to see the machines include at least a few healthy alternatives. "Not that all the unhealthy food is gone," says Parker, "but I'd like to see a few more healthy options out there."