As the COVID-19 pandemic continues on, Soldiers and their families have been forced to take on new lifestyles. For many, maintaining healthy dietary habits during this time is a struggle, but one that the Army has several programs to help with.
In this precarious environment, it has never been more important to maintain a healthy immune system, according to Capt. Michael Stablein, Registered Dietitian of 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division.
“You need to make sure that you’re taking care of your overall health and immunity. This new disease has brought to light that if you’re run down, it can really get a hold of you and potentially be fatal,” said Stablein. “The more you take care of yourself day to day, the better your body is going to be prepared to fight off things like this virus or anything else that your body encounters.”
The best way to boost the immune system is to eat a well-balanced diet, according to Army Public Health. Getting adequate nutrition can positively affect the body’s ability to prevent, fight and recover from infections.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, that means eating wholesome foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and healthy fats in smaller portions. These foods are considered “nutrient dense”, meaning they are packed with essential nutrients.
“Try to eat real food, as in whole unprocessed foods. Eating a colorful assortment of fruits and vegetables ensures that you receive a full range of essential vitamins and minerals,” said Capt. Asia Nakakura, Registered Dietitian of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division.
The USDA MyPlate food model recommends filling half your plate at each meal with vegetables and fruits, for a total of at least eight servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Grains, diary, and protein make up the rest.
“When it comes to good sources of protein, focus on chicken and fish, or lean cuts of pork, turkey and beef,” said Nakakura. “Most people associate protein with muscle, but it is also a big component of the immune system. Having adequate sources of good protein will help to keep the immune system strong.”
Key nutrients to help with immunity include:
– Zinc: A mineral with antiviral properties that may help to shorten respiratory tract infections including the common cold (shellfish, crab, beef, pork, chicken, avocados, legumes).
– Vitamin C: Protects the immune system and helps to fight off infections (citrus fruits, bell peppers, kiwi).
– Vitamin D: Reduces the risk of a respiratory infection from flu-like viruses in people who start out deficient (egg yolks, cheese, salmon, mackerel, tuna).
– Probiotic rich foods: Help with your immune system (yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, kimchi, pickles, tempeh, kombucha).
– Omega 3 rich foods: Help to boost your immune system (mackerel, salmon, sardines, flax seeds).
– Whole grains: Help to fight bacteria, especially grains rich in beta glucans (oats, barley).
Soldiers wanting individual nutrition consulting can seek the advice of their battalion or brigade dietitian.
As military dietitians, their main priority is to keep Soldiers combat ready at all times, which includes providing proactive health education and making sure a Soldier’s diet includes the necessary nutrients for optimal performance.
According to Nakakura, Soldiers will often stop to ask her questions in the hallway such as “What should I eat after I work out”, “What kind of protein powder should I choose,” “What supplements would you recommend”, and “What do you think about intermittent fasting?”
“Just being present helps”, said Nakakura.
Walk-ins are highly encouraged.
“They can drop in at any time. I usually will just take them and speak with them at that time,” said Nakakura. “If I happen to be with somebody, then I’ll simply schedule them for later that day or the next.”
For Soldiers wondering about the safety and efficacy of a supplement, Stablein advises to connect with a dietitian first.
“It’s best to reach out to a dietitian before they spend any money because that’s also one of our specialties,” said Stablein. “We can educate them on whether there is actually any scientific research behind it.”
Stablein also recommends checking out Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS) online.
GO FOR GREEN
To take the guesswork out of healthy eating, Soldiers can look to the Go for Green (G4G) program for guidance.
Found at dining facilities (DFACs) on post, G4G indicates high-performance foods and beverages that boost the performance, readiness, and health of service members.
G4G labels foods and beverages with a stoplight system—Green for High-performance fuel, Yellow for Moderate-performance fuel, and Red for Low-performance fuel —to help Soldiers identify the best meal choices for peak health performance.
Foods are also labeled with Low, Moderate, or High sodium symbols to indicate sodium content as well.
NUTRITION GUIDE PROGRAM
Service members looking to prepare meals at home can take advantage of the Nutrition Guide Program (NGP) established at Defense Commissaries. Created to align as closely as possible to the G4G program, NGP labeling helps members of the military community to shop for nutritious healthy meals.
Food items that are DoD dietitian-approved are marked with a color-coded tag, making it easier to identify products that supplement wellness needs such as ‘low sodium’, ‘without added sugar’, ‘whole grain’, ‘low fat’, ‘a good source of fiber’ and ‘organic’.
Each category is assigned a color; a thumbs-up on the label indicates that the food meets high-nutrition and high-performance measures.
Some Soldiers may be concerned that shopping for healthy whole foods might get more expensive than purchasing packaged processed foods, but this is a common misconception, according to Stablein.
“When you actually plan it out right, it can actually be sometimes cheaper, if not on the same level as processed foods” said Stablein. “You just have to do a little bit of homework and research and make a grocery list in advance, that way you can stretch your groceries a little bit further and use up your fruits or vegetables before they spoil.”
“Eating healthy is very accessible,” he added.
Go For Green (G4G): https://www.hprc-online.org/nutrition/go-green
Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS) Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS)
USDA Center for Nutrition Policy & Promotion: https://www.choosemyplate.gov
Fort Bliss Army Wellness Center (AWC): https://www.wbamc.amedd.army.mil/Departments/PreventiveMedicine/WellnessCenter/index.html