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Military Health System

Proper nutrition impacts overall health & readiness

Image of Man wearing a face mask restocking fruit at a store. Greg Wagner, a store associate for the Hurlburt Field Commissary, restocks blueberries in the commissary on Hurlburt Field, Florida, Sept. 3, 2020. The commissary is one of the many facilities on the installation annually evaluated by the Health and Wellness Center for healthy food options to sustain combat-ready Air Commandos and their families (Air Force Airman 1st Class Robyn Hunsinger, 1st Special Operations Wing).

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Nutrition is one the eight Total Force Fitness domains, and having safe, high-quality foods available to members of the military goes a long way toward sustaining and optimizing physical and cognitive performance, as well as health, well-being, and readiness.

With March serving as National Nutrition Month, Military Health System providers emphasize the importance and impact of maintaining proper nutrition throughout the year.

"The implications of nutritional fitness are far-reaching because being truly nutritionally fit will impact all the other TFF domains: medical, behavioral, psychological, environmental, physical, social, and spiritual," said Patricia Deuster, executive director of the Uniformed Services University (USU) Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP) in Bethesda, Maryland.

"Nutritional choices and habits affect every aspect of life: sleep, mood, physical and cognitive performance, sense of purpose, health, and more," Deuster said. "Nutrition is intricately woven into the fabric of each TFF domain. So by choosing a healthy diet, limiting alcohol and tobacco, and engaging in regular physical activity, this will empower service members, their families and retirees to live healthy and fulfilling lives. But we must also provide an environment so that the healthy choice is the easiest and default choice."

Army Maj. Joetta Khan, deputy director and chief of education and research, Nutrition Services Department, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) in Bethesda, Maryland explained, "We are no longer focused on the old model of treating illness but have transitioned to a more preventive approach" that incorporates proper nutrition as a linchpin of TFF.

"If we can coach, teach and mentor the soldier at multiple points within his or her career, from basic training until retirement, there could be a significant cost savings for the soldier. These could be in the form of fewer injuries and chronic diseases, more healthy work days, and increased resiliency," said Khan.

"For the soldier's family, this could translate into the soldier bringing the concepts home, and more healthy days at home," added Khan. "Finally, this continuous training in TFF could translate into fewer sick/injured days and lower medical care costs associated with treating long-term conditions."

Said Army 1st Lt. Maria Stukenborg, a holistic health fitness performance nutritionist at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state: "Proper nutrition can aid in healing from illness or injury by assisting in the healing process. Not only can nutrition help to improve recovery, but appropriate fueling helps us decrease our risk for injury."

According to performance nutritionist Army Capt. Kristina Fauser-Martin of Fort Drum in New York: "When individuals are fueling themselves appropriately, it puts them in proper energy availability. Energy availability is the amount of energy a person has available for physiological functions after exercise. If service members are eating below their energy needs, it puts them in a state called low availability, where a person's energy intake is not enough to meet their daily energy needs plus the demands of training. Low energy availability has many performance consequences including increased risk for injury."

Two baskets full of  fresh apples and bananas
The Wilson Express shop at Fort Knox, Kentucky, earned recognition in 2020 for its display of fresh fruits near the checkout for those who do not have time to cook a meal during lunchtime or after work. Having these types of foods handily available helps in the nutrition component of Total Force Fitness (Photo by: Eric Pilgrim, Fort Knox, Kentucky).

"Easy steps service members can take to improve their nutrition include working to find balance at meals and learning to eat intuitively," said Stukenborg. "This involves trying to incorporate carbohydrates, fats, and proteins at all meals and snacks as well as learning to pay attention to one's hunger and fullness cues. That includes the timing of fuels, nutrients, and fluids."

Army 1st Lt. Rachel Dyal, Madigan Army Medical Center inpatient nutrition chief, explained that when people listen to their hunger and fullness cues, they usually notice hunger cues every three to four hours.

"If you are listening to your body and hunger cues are missing, there may be mental or physical reasons you should investigate,” she said."

Other easy steps to enhance nutrition immediately include "setting yourself up for success," said CHAMP's Deuster. "Focus on three areas: the kitchen, mealtime, and your office. In the kitchen, have healthy options (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds) readily available. Designate an area as a 'snack zone' with nutritious, easy-to-grab snacks. Last, keep treats and sweets in hard-to-reach places. At mealtime, put down your phone and turn off the TV. At your desk, keep a water bottle nearby and stash a few healthy snacks in a drawer."

CHAMP resources and programs include:

Power Plate
High-Performance Eating versus Low-Performance Eating
Fuel Up to Stay Strong Every Day
Personal Protective Nutrition and Personal Protective Lifestyle
Combat Rations Database
Warfighter Nutrition Guide
Go4Green

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Last Updated: April 27, 2021
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