LOS ANGELES - Rana Parker tells pudgy police they have the right to remain chubby, but it can and will be used against them on the streets of Los Angeles. The dietitian lays down the law for recruits, veterans and top brass, letting them know that eating right can help them do a better job and could even save their lives.
"I joke with them that I'm not the food police, that I'm just here to give them information, education and hopefully give them motivation to help themselves," she said.
While overweight officers aren't unique to Los Angeles, the police department believes it's the first to hire a full-time diet coach. Parker joined in July, leaving behind decidedly less macho clients at Head Start, the federal aid program for children.
Faced with a need for more officers in recent years, the LAPD briefly relaxed body fat limits from a maximum of 22 percent for men and 30 percent for women, drawing recruits who mirrored a plumper American public.
By targeting recruits, Parker is trying to instill good eating habits before the rigors of the field make it difficult to find time for balanced meals. She's provided one-on-one counseling to about 90 recruits, taught a nutrition course to about 500 others and made presentations to more than 400 officers.
Though Parker's met some resistance to her belt-tightening measures, she's also found followers.
Recruit Ashley Goodroe has dropped four dress sizes since they started working together in September. Goodroe said the lessons she's learned include giving up sugary fruit punch and regularly eating breakfast. The hardest part was cutting back on the fat-laden weekly meal that takes her home to Georgia: fried pork chops, collard greens and corn bread.
"I feel skinny," Goodroe, 23, said with a laugh. "I actually had to get my uniforms fitted again."
Doughnuts may be the punch line for many cop jokes, but they're not the problem, Parker said. Long hours and the on-the-go nature of police work make it hard to find time to eat well and stay in shape, she said.
"They may be sitting in their car and all of a sudden they need to go for a sprint, which might end in a fight as well," Parker said. "They need to be in good shape so their body can handle that kind of stress."
But officers who don't plan their meals are reduced to nutritional bottom-feeding: drive-thru burgers, microwave burritos and greasy slices of pizza.
Parker believes officers can better take a bite out of crime if they aren't hungry on their shifts. She encourages stashing energy bars, fruit and peanut butter sandwiches in squad cars and desks, to stave off hunger when getting a full meal is hard.
Fit officers are more confident, project strength and give the department a good image, she added. A suspect may think twice about trying to outrun a physically fit officer.
Kevin Sommers, national chairman of safety and technology for the Fraternal Order of Police, applauded the LAPD for recognizing diet as an important issue.
"For the longest time in law enforcement we trained our people in policing, but we didn't teach our people about how to maintain their mental and physical well-being," he said.
Francisco Rubio Jr., a 30-year-old recruit, said diabetes and high cholesterol run in his family. But it was the recent death of a 40-year-old friend, an officer who had a heart attack on the job, that really drove home the need to get fit.
With Parker's guidance and a regimen that replaces sweets with fresh oranges and strawberries, Rubio has dropped from 195 to 175 pounds. He vows to be wary of the fatty food that lurks around every corner.
"What catches our eyes unless we discipline ourselves is pizza, hamburgers — all the food that's out there that's easy-access," Rubio said. "Now I tend to look at it as a heart attack waiting to happen."