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Nutrition’s Role in Building Resilience

Soldier cooking on a grill

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Theodore W. Ritchie/Released

Proper nutrition is vital to maintaining good health and mission readiness.1 In this article, you will find tips on making healthy food choices, whether at home or while deployed. You can also help boost the resilience of your whole family by sharing these tips with loved ones.

Why Nutrition is Important

One of the most important drivers of good physical and psychological health is what we eat.2 Food provides the energy and nutrients you need to be healthy. Nutrients include:3

  • Proteins (e.g. fish, chicken, beans)
  • Carbohydrates (e.g., bread, fruits, vegetables)
  • Fats (e.g., walnuts, olive oils)
  • Vitamins (e.g., vitamin D, folic acid)
  • Minerals (e.g., potassium, calcium)
  • Water

In short, healthy food is really fuel for the body. This fuel is key to your physical and mental performance, and helps maintain emotional control during field operations.4 Beyond performance, nutrition also plays an important role in protecting overall health throughout a lifetime. A diet rich in whole grains, lean protein, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products helps lower the risk of certain diseases such as diabetes.3

Nutrition Tips

While healthy food options may be limited while deployed, the military has long understood the role of nutrition for service members. The military is continually working on improving the food supply for deployed warriors such as introducing the Unitized Group Ration–Express, a nutritionally complete meal-in-a-box group ration, and re-assigning some dieticians at dining facilities to implement education programs and food selection recommendations.1
If you are deployed, keep these helpful nutrition tips in mind:

  • To boost energy, consume complex carbohydrates such as fruits and whole grain bread
  • To meet the demand for increased energy needs in the field, increase your intake of food to prevent fatigue
  • To meet the need for increased energy in cold weather and at high altitudes, try to eat healthy, nutritious snacks in between meals and drink more than your thirst may dictate since the sensation does not keep pace with water loss.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration; even mild dehydration can reduce your physical and mental performance

While home, and when possible while deployed, the following daily nutrition recommendations are important to keep in mind:1,5

Fruits and vegetables

Eat at least 3 – 5 servings of colorful vegetables and 2 or more servings of fruit each day.

Grains

Aim for 6 or more servings of whole grain products each day.

Fiber

20 – 35 grams of dietary fiber are recommended daily, although a low-fiber diet may be preferred during some operations.

Dairy

Aim to have 3 cups of low-fat dairy products, including milk, yogurt and cheese, each day.

Meat/beans

Eat 7 ounces of meat or beans (legumes) each day, with lean or low-fat choices that are heavy on fish, beans, peas, nuts and seeds.

In addition to these food groups, research is also uncovering the importance of omega-3 fatty acids to a healthy diet. Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to decreased risk of heart disease, certain cancers, circulatory problems and high blood pressure. Researchers have also linked omega-3 deficiencies with increased risk of depression or other psychological health concerns. Some studies indicate that supplements provided to warriors who have low levels of omega-3s might provide a significant boost in their mood and additional resistance to stress.1 Seafood, including oily ocean fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel, are among the richest fish sources of DHA, one of the most efficient forms of omega-3 fatty acids. While there is no official recommendation on a recommended daily allowance for omega-3, dietary guidelines call for increasing the amount of seafood consumed as part of a healthy eating pattern.6

Beyond food choices, it is important to maintain a balance of calorie intake and energy expended. While military nutrition efforts have traditionally focused on making sure warriors are eating enough, the concern today is about eating too much.1 Consuming more calories than you need leads to excess weight. Being overweight can impact the success of missions, as well as raise your risk for heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes and more.7

What Line Leaders Can Do

As a line leader, it is important to stay informed about your service’s nutrition programs. It is also important to educate units about nutrition using guidance from each respective service.1 Finally, you should provide a model for healthy eating behavior and encourage everyone to make nutrition choices that help build resilience and contribute to mission success.

Additional Resources

Sources

1Scott Montain, Christina Carvey and Mark Stephens. “Nutritional Fitness” [PDF 4.65MB], Total Force Fitness for the 21st Century, Supplement to Military Medicine-Volume 175. Published August 2010.
2The Nutrition Source, Harvard School of Public Health. Last accessed Aug. 20, 2014.
3Nutrition, MedLine Plus, National Institutes of Health. Last accessed Aug. 20, 2014. 
4Module 6: High Caliber Nutrition in the Field [PDF 1.10MB], U.S. Army Public Health Command (Provisional). Last accessed Aug. 20, 2014.
5Patricia A. Deuster and others. “Sustaining Health for the Long-Term Warfighter” [PDF 451KB], The Warfighter Nutrition Guide, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Last accessed Aug. 20, 2014.  
6Covington, Maggie. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids,” American Family Physician. Published July 1, 2004.
7Health Consequences, Overweight & Obesity, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Last accessed Aug. 20, 2014.

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