Fueling the Warfighter
PORTSMOUTH, VA, UNITED STATES
The United States depends on its warfighters to be operationally ready at any and all times. Each branch of service administers physical assessments of their personnel throughout the year and millions of tax payer money is poured into gyms and equipment for service members to maintain physical standards. But what goes before the gym? Nutrition!
What we put into our bodies is the foundation and fuel for what we want to achieve physically and mentally. Through the years a myriad of myths and facts have flooded society, ranging from eliminating carbohydrates, concentration of certain food groups, even to how and when we should eat what.
“I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that we shouldn’t allow our health and lifestyle choices to be dictated by trends and we should strive to make the most informed decisions based on proven, science-backed information,” says Jennifer Meeks, Public Health Nutritionist and Registered Dietitian at the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center. “The DoD community has so many credible resources to help them navigate through the mis-information and get to the root of what makes a healthful diet, that can be tailored to their own personal tastes, preferences and lifestyle,” added Meeks.
About one in four young adults are too heavy to serve in our military according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which poses a challenge to the military’s recruiting and retention efforts. One key may simply be implementing healthy diets earlier rather than later.
“We might not notice these negative effects when we’re young, but as we age our bodies will adapt to the environment we’ve created for ourselves,” said Meeks. “The earlier in our lifetime that we take care of our body appropriately—choosing high quality fuel/food sources, engaging in regular physical activity and allowing our body adequate time to rest and recover – the longer we will enjoy a better return on our health investment.”
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), recommends filling half your plate at each meal with vegetables and fruits resulting in the recommended eight servings daily. Grains, dairy, and protein provide the rest. Military members don’t always have total control over their food choices or access to cook their own meals, but could still make a positive impact.
“We can almost always try to make a healthful addition into our day such as adding half a cup of some kind of leafy green to one meal a day,” said Meeks. “It’s a small goal that can be easy to do, and this one small thing can help us feel like we’ve done something good for ourselves which can have a cascading impact for the rest of our day.”
There are direct correlations in mental health as well via serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical that nerve cells produce which help us regulate our daily routines such as sleep, appetite, mediate our emotions and inhibit pain. Nearly 95% of serotonin is produced within the gastrointestinal tract and they activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain, reducing depression and regulating anxiety.
“When we feel like we are taking care of ourselves, we are better able to make sound decisions, better able to perform our jobs and better able to interact with other people positively,” Meeks added.
In adverse times like we are experiencing now with COVID-19, it’s also important to note that a well-balanced diet also plays a role in our ability to fend off or recover from infections and boost our immunity.
“The pandemic has changed how we live and breathe in the world and how we interact with each other,” Meeks says, “underscoring the importance of being as healthy as possible BEFORE being exposed to something that can harm us. Service members are routinely asked to go into harm’s way, and having a strong immune system can help increase chances of survival and speed up recovery times.”
Operational readiness is a critical part of the daily life in the military and their ability to be physically, mentally, and agility in recovery all build upon what they put into their bodies. More information and statistics can be found at: https://www.myplate.gov/myplate-plan, and https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/.
The Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center (NMCPHC) develops and shapes public health for the U.S. Navy and Marines Corps through health surveillance, epidemiology and analysis, disease and injury prevention, and public health consultation. Learn more by going to www.nmcphc.med.navy.mil. Follow NMCPHC on social media at https://www.facebook.com/NavyAndMarineCorpsPublicHealthCenter http://twitter.com/nmcphc and https://www.instagram.com/nmcphc/