BREMERTON, WA, UNITED STATES
Story by Douglas Stutz
It’s only fitting for a Navy registered dietitian to help determine if the old adage, ‘a brace of sea air is good for the appetite.’
Especially when done supporting operational readiness across the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Navy Lt. Lorna Brown, registered dietitian assigned to Navy Medicine Readiness Training Command (NMRTC) Bremerton, deployed for four months with Sailors and Marines of amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) and the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Brown volunteered her expertise for a pilot project looking at the benefits of deploying a dietitian ‘haze gray underway’ focusing on health-outcomes and operational readiness with collected data sent to Navy Health Research Center.
“I was looking at the efficacy of having a dietitian on board to improve the crews’ exercise habits, sleep habits, and reduce consumption of supplements, specifically energy drinks. Also see if I could change food habits, choices and behaviors. Those of us in the Navy Medicine need to know what the fleet does. Our hospital mission is different than a ship command and their deployment challenges. Understanding that is important to ensure we can provide better support,” said Brown.
She offered nutrition classes throughout the deployment. Sometimes an entire shop would be present. Other times it was standing room only on the deck plates. Topics included clarifying different areas of performance nutrition, heart health and supplement safety.
“It was good even if everyone learned just one thing, then shared to help make a difference. As an example, a lot quit energy drinks or cut down significantly. They noticed that their sleep patterns started to improve. We don’t realize how much caffeine is in a lot of food and drink products which can last up to six hours and affect someone’s sleep,” remarked Brown.
Brown considers most people inherently know what healthy choices are. At least in principle. But applying such knowledge into the normal daily routine, even on deployment, might prove difficult without specific support and guidance.
“When you’re underway on a ship, you’re really eating out three times a day. We can get into unhealthy choices. It’s easy to get into the habit of adding cookies at both lunch and dinner. I recommend, ‘you can have cookies, but it’s probably not a good idea at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every day.’ We need to modify. Just have two cookies for dessert perhaps twice a week after one meal,” explained Brown.
Brown also advocated the Navy’s ‘Go for Green’ program – a Secretary of Navy directive for advancing nutrition efforts to provide healthier eating options, from ship to shore. The program uses a color coded menu – akin to a traffic light – to noticeably provide good advice for choosing what to eat.
“The color-coding system is a good visual. Green refers to high performance nourishment with less sugar and saturated fats to fuel our bodies and minds. Yellow is moderate in performance enhancing foods with less effective offerings. Red means a lot more sugars and fats and offering limited benefits. If someone is going through the line and chooses something red at breakfast, they probably don’t need to do the same at lunch or for dinner,” Brown noted.
The gratifying aspect for Brown was being able to just help others get the outcome they wanted.
“Those who attended classes, really applied what was shared and even asked for further explanation did improve their health. One just texted his weight is under 200 pounds for the first time in years. He started at 227 over four months ago and is now down to 195. He’s happy and feels comfortable in his own skin. It’s his happiness, and also his health. That’s the goal. Carrying extra weight is going to take a toll on ankles, knees, joints, and especially the heart. This is not about our goal for someone’s health. It’s about helping someone get to their goal,” Brown stated.
Brown acknowledges the norm that most who deploy will experience weight loss. Yet there’s a caveat to that.
“There may not be improvements in diabetes risk, managing blood pressure or cholesterol, but weight loss, whether wanted it or not, is typical,” said Brown. “Maybe only a few pounds but that’s usually what happens. When we get back, we tend to gain the lost weight back, along with extra. So it is interesting to have at least one report back on having no weight gain.”
“Our jobs are linked to performance and readiness,” continued Brown. “Those carrying extra pounds will take a toll on their body over time. It can also take an mental and emotional toll. You see this every Navy physical readiness test season with people stressing to make weight and pass a tape measurement. They have no problem with the physical portion but the body composition assessment can be stressful.”
Yet does sea air improve a person’s hunger? Conventional lore implied that was – allegedly – the case in the 19th century, especially in northern climes where big city air quality was considered unhealthier than seaside communities and being embarked on a seagoing vessel.
Fast forward today. Healthy vs. harmful options are not just up in the air. They’re potentially in that plate in front of you.
At ship or shore, a Navy dietitian can help make the best choice.