Documentary Inspires Tyler Firefighters To Eat Clean
By COSHANDRA DILLARD
Americans' visual idea of a firefighter is one that is a brawny, heroic icon. There is a belief that they spend their down time in firehouses cooking batches of spicy chili chock full of meat or grilling barbeque ribs and burgers.
But a group of firefighters at Fire Station No. 9 in Tyler is bucking that image. Motivated by potential health crises and inspired by popular documentaries on the state of America's health, four firefighters have made a lifestyle change that has proven to be beneficial.
Wes Malcolm, 34, started eating better quality foods and reduced his meat intake while Bob Moon, 48, became a vegan. Zach Houston, 34, and Matthew Houk, 46, also have been dedicated to eating clean and making good lifestyle choices.
That image of the ravenous-eating firefighter holds some truth, depending on which station you're at, Malcolm said.
"Right here, we're kind of all on the same track with eating right, but when you go to other fire stations, not so much," he said.
When Houston showed the documentary "Forks over Knives" at the station, it motivated all of them. The 2011 documentary details how industrialized food and misconceptions about nutrition and medicine has led Americans astray, increasing their risks for cancer, diabetes and other chronic illnesses.
It reaffirmed what Malcolm already was doing and encouraged the others to change course or maintain healthy eating.
"There was a lot of medical research behind it," Houston said of the documentary.
Malcolm does most of the cooking on his shift and they eat a lot of vegetarian meals such as black bean burgers. There's also a collection of books on vegetarianism and nutrition available.
With an emphasis on health, Malcolm and Moon have become more efficient in their jobs.
"They're not working as hard to do the same thing that they were doing before," Houk said.
Malcolm added, "I think so many people are uneducated in proper nutrition. We're educated by what we are told we are supposed to have but no one asks why."
Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a nutritional scientist featured in "Forks Over Knives," has said, "I know nothing else in medicine that can come close to what a plant-based diet can do."
This point drove Moon to take a leap into unknown territory. He also noted that the treatment of animals on farms and in factories was another factor in him making a change.
He started eating less meat last fall and 12 weeks ago, he became a vegan. Moon still is learning about his new lifestyle. He's always reading books on the varying degrees of vegetarianism.
"There's a whole range of vegetarianism."
Moon has lost nearly 40 pounds since last summer and his blood pressure has improved. His blood pressure was high and he tipped the scales at more than 200 pounds.
He was worried, as hypertension and cardiovascular problems has been in his family's health history.
Moon had never paid attention to food labels, and he would often graze on sweets. It took about three weeks to lose craving.
"I was an unconscious eater," he said.
Moon said his taste buds are enhanced since forgoing heavy dressings, sauces and other processed foods. He slows down to eat and is watching less television because it is a source of advertisements about unhealthy foods.
He said he isn't concerned about nutritional needs, as he gets plenty of protein from beans and vegetables. Being a vegan takes time, education and an effort.
"All I have to do is get through today," he said. "From what I've read so far, plants can provide you with all you need."
Malcolm was more than 40 pounds overweight last year and had sleep apnea. That extra weight was a health risk and it also made him less fit for the job. Firefighters already are bound by extra weight from gear, tools and an air pack.
While shopping for a box of brownies at a grocery store, he stopped by a blood pressure kiosk, which revealed his blood pressure at 140/95, or stage 1 hypertension.
When he returned home, he consulted with his wife, a registered nurse, and began researching the effects of high blood pressure. His wife grew up eating a plant-based diet and had warned Malcolm of his unhealthy habits.
"I was that typical 'Meat is the main course of the meal and veggies are just little things that surround it' guy," he said. "She didn't officially try to change my diet but threw hints that, 'You're pretty much eating rocket fuel.'"
During spring break, there were a few times Malcolm ate pizza and burgers two or three times. After a week of binging, that shot his blood pressure back up.
"I came back, I guess you could say and detoxed -- started eating a real diet again and within a week, it was back down," he said. "I watched it every day go down further and further."
Malcolm was a self-proclaimed "Coke-aholic," drinking soft drinks regularly.
"I would drink one or two a day," he said. "I'd probably drink a six pack or plus a week."
His first major change was letting go of the sugary drinks.
"I thought, 'How on the Earth am I ever going to cut these things out of my life?' I mean I love them. And now, I'm almost a little bit repulsed by drinking one. Once your body gets used how it's suppose to eat, it doesn't want the bad stuff anymore."
Malcolm changed from eating processed foods to consuming more plant-based food. He still eats meat but only about one meal a day.
"It started off with just portion control and making better choices," Malcolm said. "That evolved to making even better choices including more exercise. My wife taught me how to eat. She used this term, and for about a year, I didn't know what she was talking about. She said the food I would eat has no nutritional value. ... It's either productive or nonproductive to your body."
For Moon and Malcolm, their transition was difficult at first, but their health scares made it adaptable.
"Once I had switched over to a pretty much vegetarian diet, I don't tolerate large amounts of meat well anymore. If I eat it, I'll feel ill," Malcolm said.
The men enjoy a healthy diet and it's nothing new for Houk, who as the other men say, is in nearly perfect shape. Houk has maintained the same diet for years, avoided red meat, eats vegetables and has exercised regularly for 28 years, since he was 18.
"This is the guy that at every physical fitness test, he's the guy to beat," Malcolm said. "He's machine. His last name is Houk so his nickname around here is the Incredible Houk. He's a beast. It's almost inhuman how strong he is."
But Houk isn't interested in forcing his way of life on other people.
"You set the example, but it has to be a personal choice," Houk said.
Malcolm won't become a vegan but will continue to enjoy a primarily plant-based diet. The guys also have tried kosher food, as Houston is Jewish. Moon tries to eat organic as much as possible.
"This group of guys we've got together here is pretty open-minded, and we try stuff," Moon said.
They are clear that their way of eating is not a temporary diet, not a quick fix for weight loss or other health problems.
"When you get to the point where you have a health issue, you've got to do something. Either take pills or do some changes," Moon said. "I prefer to do some changes."