A firefighter for almost 20 years, Greg Lessons became concerned by obesity levels amongst UK firefighters and the knock-on effects – such as heart attacks, diabetes and other preventable health conditions – especially with the extreme temperatures that firefighters are exposed to.
After completing his Human Nutrition (Public Health/Sports) MSc at London Met, Greg now works as a nutritionist for the London Fire Brigade, where he’s undertaking a PhD in Human Nutrition (Public Health) whilst beginning to implement his research in the real world – and the results are impressive.
Greg has acquired a growing number of awards, including the Health and Nutrition Award in the Public Sector Catering Awards 2020 (for improving the unhealthy food environment which is characteristic of fire stations) as well as Nutritionist of the Year at the Caroline Walker Trust awards 2019. He has also appeared on the BBC to talk about firefighter nutrition.
We hear that your ground-breaking dissertation received a top prize from the Nutrition Society...
Seventeen years of public service as a firefighter alerted me to a culture of overnutrition at fire stations. Only one previous UK study had quantified the prevalence of overweight and obesity levels in a county fire brigade (66%). Other recent research has placed firefighters at elevated risk of coronary heart disease and heart attacks caused by exposure to excessive heat whilst fighting fires. It therefore became obvious to me that the modifiable risk factors of being overweight and obese must be addressed. This however had been overlooked by UK researchers.
To our knowledge, my study is the first in the UK to deliver a worksite nutrition-based intervention for firefighters, to improve health and reduce obesity. My multi-component intervention involved a face-to-face dietary, physical activity and lifestyle education programme alongside the environmental modification of obesogenic fire stations. My one-month pilot trial significantly lowered BMI, body fat percentage, total energy intake, and several other key dietary variables for the intervention station firefighters, four of whom crossed over into more favourable waist circumference risk classifications. This significantly reduced their risk of suffering several chronic diseases. The intervention was also very well received by all participants which indicated a high level of feasibility.
Firefighters were thanking me for putting them on a healthier path, telling me how much better they were feeling.
This set the scene for what was to follow in 2018-2019.
I was encouraged to submit an abstract of my dissertation to present at the Nutrition Society winter conference (2017) by my dissertation supervisor and course leader Dr Dee Bhakta. It got accepted and I was entered into the student competition, competing with twelve BSc / MSc / PhD students from universities across Europe. As a result, my abstract was published in the journal Proceedings of the Nutrition Society.
I delivered the presentation on the first day of the conference. The winner was announced the following day at the Royal Society of Medicine. As the title of my study was announced as the winner, Dr Bhakta and I exchanged a look of jubilant disbelief! This ranked as my greatest achievement up to that point, up there with my MSc distinction and winning Best Project Prize in dietetics, food and nutrition. It reinforced self belief and confidence in my ability to deliver an academic presentation at a high level, which was previously one of my greatest fears.
I can honestly say that I used to fear public speaking far more than running into a burning building! Little did I know that this would soon become an integral part of my future role.
Can you explain what you do in your current job?
The main part of my role entails visiting various fire stations and delivering a developed version of my intervention.
This involves group-based nutrition education, assessment of nutritional status, and individual nutrition consultations for firefighters as well as other more sedentary departments within the London Fire Brigade. This enables the delivery of a personalised nutrition approach which is resulting in significantly improved dietary behaviour, improved body composition (loss of body fat) and improved mood. Overall, the intervention programme is being very well received by staff of all levels in all areas of the workforce.
I am also currently piloting fire station kitchen-based cookery workshops for groups of mess-managers (firefighters who purchase and cook for their watch / team). This entails me demonstrating practical methods of putting nutrition theory into practice. This too is pioneering work and is being very well received by mess-managers.
I also hold seminars, clinics and develop educational materials for various departments within the Brigade (not just firefighters). This includes nutrition consultation drop-in clinics for women firefighters; interventions to help the more sedentary areas of the workforce, eg the emergency call centre operators and admin teams; seminars and lectures for Fire Safety inspection officers; educational literature creation for the London Fire Brigade Menopause Action Group; nutrition educational content development for the London Fire Brigade Health and wellbeing intranet portal; and regularly answering nutrition questions from LFB staff via email. I recently created and delivered a lecture at Brigade HQ on Nutrition and Mental Heath. Dealing with the situations which firefighters face has a big impact on mental health so I considered this a particularly important piece of work.
The work I did whilst studying at London Met is the foundation of everything I currently do within my professional role. I now fully appreciate how well the Human Nutrition MSc course has been structured. I have drawn upon knowledge and skills learned in every single module, from Advanced Metabolic Nutrition to Sports Nutrition to Obesity Policy and Public Health.
The biggest help was obviously the dissertation work which has now developed a role for myself as a full-time nutritionist for firefighters. I think it's fair to say that, alongside my PhD which is an extrapolation of my MSc dissertation, I am proud to be one of the leading experts on firefighter nutrition.
If you could change one thing about firefighters’ current diets, what would it be?
Portion sizes! Firefighters tend to overeat for a variety of reasons. My intervention programme addresses this issue.
Have you found the firefighters and the London Fire Brigade receptive to your nutrition ideas?
Very much so. Nutrition is arguably the most confusing area of science. I've identified a real demand for a reliable source of evidence-based nutrition information that can be trusted. Firefighters can be considered as 'industrial athletes', and as such they care about their health and physical performance. I've found that my suggestions are adopted and adhered to in the majority of cases.
My extensive experience as a firefighter is a huge advantage in terms of my ability to communicate and develop rapport with firefighters. It helps knowing intimately the demands of the job (both physical and mental) and how this interacts with dietary behaviour and nutrition.
What made you choose London Met in particular?
Firstly the Human Nutrition (Public Health/Sports) MSc encompassed everything I was interested in. Location was also a contributory factor, as I can travel to the Holloway campus from home within the hour.
What were the facilities like at the University?
What was your favourite piece of equipment for your course and why?
My favorite piece of equipment was the body composition analyser which London Met loaned to me to carry out dissertation work.
What did you like best about your course and London Met?
The people – my lecturers and classmates. Firefighting helped me realise and appreciate that success is a product of persistence, hard work and a strong cohesive positive team. One person can only achieve so much on their own, and I cannot thank Dr Dee Bhakta enough for her perpetual encouragement and expert supervision, not only throughout my dissertation, but throughout the entire masters degree and onto my PhD. Dr Bhakta's expert insights, guidance and belief in my ability are integral to my success, and the Human Nutrition students of London Met are extremely fortunate to have such a great course leader. Professor David McCarthy is also an inspiring, extremely knowledgeable and very helpful lecturer. They both created a comfortable learning environment. I was also lucky enough to have some excellent coursemates. We helped each other through.
Did anything surprise you about your course or London Met?
What surprised me most of all was how new an area of science nutrition is. I embarked upon the MSc expecting to find all of the definitive answers hidden within the nutrition world. What I found is that there is a lot we still don't know. At first I felt disappointed but that turned onto excitement once I realised we are on the dawn of a new era of many discoveries, and with my research I get to contribute to such discoveries.
At time of writing this interview I am on my way home from the 13th European Nutrition Conference which was held in Dublin. This was a truly enriching experience where I learnt about cutting edge research and emerging findings happening at universities around Europe.
Were you in any clubs/societies here?
I joined the Nutrition Society immediately following my MSc. This enables me to maintain CPD via regular attendance at conferences and webinars whilst providing a valuable network of other nutritionists, dieticians and academics for mutual support. I would highly recommend this to other nutrition students and graduates.
Can you describe your time at London Met in one word?
What’s the next step in your career or next goal? How do you think London Met is helping you achieve these?
My next step career wise is to oversee the successful roll out of my programme across the London Fire Brigade. My next academic step is to complete my PhD. London Met, in particular the health sciences team are providing support on every conceivable level. I really couldn’t ask for more.
Can you tell us a bit more about your Nutritionist of the Year award?
I recently won the Caroline Walker Trust Nutritionist of the Year award. I am absolutely thrilled to be on the same list as eminent nutritionists, including Dr Louis Levy, who influences national public health policy; Dr Glenys Jones, Deputy CEO of the Association for Nutrition; Barbara Bray MBE; and Dr Kawther Hashem, who is coordinating the Action on Sugar project.
It is a genuine honour to represent the London Met Public Health Nutrition Research Group, the School of Human Sciences, and the heroic people from the London Fire Brigade who risk their lives to save others.
"I can honestly say that I used to fear public speaking far more than running into a burning building! Little did I know that this would soon become an integral part of my future role."