As part of the First Strike Ration, a shelf-stable pocket sandwich gives Soldiers nutritious portable ration that they can eat on the go. The sandwiches score well in field testing. (Photo courtesy of Combat Feeding Directorate.)
By Dr. Valerie Trabosh
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle depends partly upon nutrition. Unfortunately, Soldiers are continually subjected to pressures from obesity-producing environments and the marketing of dietary supplements. The poor choices that can result make it difficult to regulate personal body mass, maintain a proper balance of nutrients and, most troubling, have nutritionally valuable meals.
Twenty-first century Soldiers conduct battle tasks of varied duration and intensity in adverse environments with multiple stressors. Given these factors, it is difficult to determine how the metabolic consequences of intense physical and cognitive effort, restricted replenishment of nutrients, fluids and sleep, and exposure to climatic extremes influence the effects of nutrients in the rations provided during military missions.
Novel nutritional strategies that enhance metabolic processes are required to sustain peak physical readiness at all times. Feeding plans and healthy weight management programs tailored for military effectiveness are also critical. These will promote effective training before deployments, enhance physiological recovery after redeployments, and support optimal garrison health between deployments.
Army research under the Military Operational Medicine Research Program (MOMRP) takes a multifaceted approach, involving scientists from many specialties working together to understand and develop solutions to the military’s nutritional shortcomings. The research begins with the collection of descriptive data acquired during field studies that involve military units and personnel both deployed and in garrison training, to document and characterize problems related to nutrition.
Experimental models—human, animal, tissue, cell, and molecular—are used to further elucidate the metabolic mechanisms underlying those problems, along with possible solutions. Based on mechanistic research findings, nutritional solutions are proposed, and initial efficacy tests are conducted using experimental human and animal models. Finally, fielded pilot studies are performed with the appropriate military populations to validate laboratory findings and demonstrate feasibility for implementation.
The scientific activities of this research exploit intramural resources and leverage extramural relationships with academia and industry. The products are transitioned to customers who make operational rations (the Combat Feeding Directorate of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center (NSRDEC), Natick, MA); produce educational materials (U.S. Army Public Health Command, Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD); publish doctrine that is used by all services and DoD personnel (U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School, San Antonio, TX); develop and implement health policy; and produce Soldier materiel (Program Executive Office Soldier).
A recent success of this directed effort is the First Strike Ration (FSR). The FSR is a lightweight ration that incorporates eat-on-the-move nutrient delivery systems and nutritionally optimized components. Research performed at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine through the MOMRP has helped to develop the FSR, in partnership with the NSRDEC Combat Feeding Directorate, to meet the requirements of today’s Soldier on the asymmetrical battlefield, while also addressing the Future Force Warrior capability for a lightweight, efficient ration.
In 2008, the FSR was validated to be nutritionally optimized, and it outperformed the ration then in use. Research to optimize rations continues, with the ideal ration being modified frequently to meet the emerging nutritional needs of the Soldier.
Even with these years of research to optimize the military ration so that it will contain the proper nutrients, Service members often supplement their food supplies. These supplements include vitamins, potentially performance-enhancing compounds, and many other manufactured dietary additives that have not been scientifically proven to produce the promised results.
The Defense Health Program supports an initiative known as the Center Alliance for Dietary Supplements Research (CADSR). Its mission is to monitor the use, adverse effects, safety, and efficacy of the dietary supplements being used by the military; examples of these include omega-3/fish oil, DMA (dimethylaminoethanol), and caffeine. The CADSR provides research and information to support policy decisions to the appropriate DoD elements, including the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, and the Service Surgeon Generals. As advertisements for new supplements appear daily on the Internet, service members may be in danger of taking unsafe combinations of these commercially available dietary additives. It is important that they receive proper guidelines and educational materials regarding such products. The CADSR strives to inform Service members of the true efficacy of various dietary supplements while presenting to them the adverse events that could occur.
Future work in the area of Soldier nutrition includes an in-depth study of military dining facilities and their impacts on eating behavior. Although healthy options are available in these facilities, a strong inclination exists for service members to choose the less healthy and, theoretically, more appetizing sweets and fried choices. Through education and by modifying dining facility practices, it may be possible to promote healthy eating choices during military deployments and at home with family members. With the growing epidemic of obesity, it remains critical to provide the most nutritious options for Soldiers en route to healthy eating behaviors.
As the saying goes, “We are what we eat.” The optimal performance and operational success of our military, and ultimately our Nation, depend greatly on the healthy and safe nutritional practices of our service members.
- DR. VALERIE A. TRABOSH is the Physiological Health Portfolio Manager for the Military Operational Medicine Research Program of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command. She holds a B.S. in biochemistry and molecular biology from Dickinson College and a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology from Georgetown University. She maintains oversight on projects involving nutritional research, as well as sleep, fatigue, and physiological resilience research initiatives.