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Nutrition’s Role in Mission Readiness

Food is one of the most important drivers of good physical and psychological health. Proper nutrition provides the nutrients your brain needs to manage stress, regulate mood and emotions, maintain alertness and optimize physical and cognitive performance – all essential components of mission readiness. A diet rich in whole grains, nuts, beans, fruits and vegetables can even help lower the risk of depression.

There is more to proper nutrition than just counting calories. Mission readiness depends on living a healthy lifestyle, even when on the go.  Learn how the foods you eat can affect your physical and psychological performance.

What You Eat Affects How You Feel

A healthy diet that optimally fuels both mind and body includes:

  • Proteins: Made up of amino acids that support brain function and help build and repair tissues, protein is essential to the body. Sources of protein include fish, poultry, eggs, beans and nuts. Too little protein can lead to a lack of essential amino acids. This can be associated with low mood or physical aggression.
  • Carbohydrates: As the body’s main source of energy, carbohydrates come in many forms. Carbs include fruits, vegetables and whole grains. They help produce key brain chemicals, like serotonin, that promote feelings of well-being.
  • Fats: The brain needs fats (known as lipids) to function. Healthy fats provide energy and help you absorb vitamins. They include olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocado. Try eating seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids to help regulate stress. Salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Vitamins and Minerals: Deficiencies in key micronutrients can contribute to low energy, feelings of anxiety and symptoms of depression. Vitamins and minerals are essential to cognitive and physical performance. They include magnesium, vitamins B and D, folic acid, potassium and calcium. Try eating legumes and leafy greens, which are high in magnesium and help regulate blood sugar.

Optimizing your Nutrition

Eating healthy keeps you sharp mentally and fueled physically. This is especially important when facing increased stress or high operational tempo. Make smart food choices with these helpful tips:

  • Stay hydrated. Nearly three quarters of the brain and heart are composed of water. Even mild fluid loss can impact your cognitive and physical performance. Hydrate throughout your day, aiming to drink half your body weight (in pounds) in ounces of water daily. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, hydrate with 75 ounces of water.
  • Keep your energy up. Eat regularly to prevent dips in blood sugar that can lead to fatigue. Consume lean proteins, healthy fats and complex carbs from whole food sources. Complex carbs contain more nutrients than those made mostly of simple sugars. They help you feel fuller longer while keeping your mood and energy stable. An easy swap is to replace white bread with whole-grain bread.
  • Minimize processed and sugary foods/beverages. Processed foods from vending machines or fast food restaurants may be quick but they aren’t the healthiest option. They often contain higher amounts of sugar. Studies indicate that a diet high in refined sugar can promote inflammation, impair brain function and worsen mood disorders. For a quick and nutritious meal, opt for a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store and “steam-in-bag” microwavable frozen vegetables and whole grain rice.

Staying Mission Ready

Proper nutrition can help you stay mission ready, both physically and mentally. However, seek care if you are experiencing psychological health concerns. Call the Psychological Health Resource Center at 866-966-1020. You can confidentially speak with a trained health resource consultant or use their live chat.

Additional Resources

Sources

Boost your mental performance with better nutrition. (2018, November 02). Retrieved May 20, 2019, from https://www.hprc-online.org/articles/boost-your-mental-performance-with-better-nutrition

Rao, T. S., Asha, M. R., Ramesh, B. N., & Rao, K. S. (2008). Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 50(2), 77–82. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.42391

Psaltopoulou, T., PhD, Sergentanis, T. N., MD, Panagiotakos, D. B., PhD, Sergantanis, I. N., MD, & Scarmeas, N., MD, MSc. (2013). Mediterranean diet, stroke, cognitive impairment, and depression: A meta‐analysis. Annals of Neurology. Retrieved June 20, 2019, from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ana.23944.

The Water in You: Water and the Human Body. (n.d.). Retrieved June 5, 2019.

Human Performance Resource Center. (2018, February 5). Hydration Basics. Retrieved June 5, 2019.

Selhub, E. (2015, November 16). Nutritional Psychiatry: Your Brain on Food. Retrieved June 25, 2019. 

Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. (2018, November 8). Sustaining Health for the Long-Term Warfighter. In Warfighter Nutrition Guide (16).

Deuster, Patricia. (2014, November). Nutritional Armor for the Warfighter: Can Omega-3 Fatty Acids Enhance Stress Resilience, Wellness, and Military Performance? Military Medicine, Vol. 179(11 Suppl): 185–91. doi: 10.7205/MILMED-D-14-00190

Elfenbaum, P., Crawford, C., Enslein, V., & Berry, K. (2017, June 15). Priorities for Implementing Nutritional Science into Practice to Optimize Military Performance. Nutrition Review, Vol. 75(S2): 89–97. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nux019

McClung, J. P., & Gaffney-Stomberg, E. (2016, January 1). Optimizing Performance, Health, and Well-being: Nutritional Factors. Military Medicine, Vol. 181(1 Suppl): 86–91. doi: 10.7205/MILMED-D-15-00202