A frontline firefighter for 17 years, Greg Lessons is now full-time nutritionist for the London Fire Brigade and in 2019 he was named ‘Nutritionist of the Year’.
Where did your interest in nutrition come from?
“It kind of all started when I first joined the fire brigade aged 21, when I turned up for my first night shift, walked into the mess where we all ate and saw these huge dustbin-lid-size plates of food.
“I remember asking the mess manager who does the cooking for the watch. “Is this all for me?” I asked. It was. I cracked on and sure enough I began to gain weight.
“That triggered an interest in improving healthy and body composition by proper nutrition. Eventually it led me to study for a Masters in Nutrition at London Metropolitan University on a part-time basis. I’d study in my down-time or swap shifts to attend lectures.”
How did you switch from putting out fires to teaching firefighters to eat healthier?
“I chose my research dissertation topic on firefighters’ diets and behaviour. No one had ever done nutritional intervention work with firefighters before in the UK.
“When I carried out a one month pilot trial I got results back of significant reductions in body fat in waist circumference and significant improvement in mood among firefighters – many of whom came and thanked me because they felt much better in themselves.
“I was selected to present my work at the Royal Society of Medicine. My study was published and it eventually led to the top brass in the Fire Service asking me to roll out a nutrition programme on a much larger scale.”
How do you go about changing what your colleagues eat?
“I’ve been a firefighter for 17 years at Shoreditch, Leyton and most recently Hornchurch fire stations. I know how they think and feel and the demands of the job – and I know what it’s like to run a mess kitchen, too.
“I created a recipe book and I show firefighters and mess managers how to incorporate healthy ingredients into commonly eaten fire station meals. I changed the quality of the starches they eat: from white pasta and bread, which upsets glucose levels – especially in shift workers – to wholegrains which help them manage their blood sugar more effectively.
“It also involves teaching them how to reduce the high-fat and high-sugar foods, and trying to get them to finish eating earlier because we become less glucose tolerant as the day wears on. It’s the sum of all these things that’s proving quite effective.”
It sounds like useful advice for anyone wanting to improve their energy levels – not just firefighters?
“Firefighters are industrial athletes. There’s a lot of crossover with sports nutrition because they do need to exert themselves just like an athlete under pressure.
“So I teach them the right types of food to eat for the right types of activities, how to rehydrate properly and I promote making their own hypotonic sports drinks solutions for after heavy sweating. And this can replace body fluids five times faster than pure water.”
Greg Lessons, who is the first ever dedicated nutritionist employed by a fire and rescue service, won ‘Nutritionist of the Year’ at the Caroline Walker Trust (CWT) awards.
Interested in joining the fire service? Discover more at london-fire.gov.uk
Words: Rob Kemp