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Military Health System

You’d Be Surprised How Eating Habits Affect You, and Your Readiness

Image of Military personnel picking out broccoli. Army Sgt. First Class Brent Leverette, executive assistant to the Command Sergeant Major, U.S. Army Communications Electronics Command, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, selects a healthy vegetable at the commissary June 29, 2021. (Photo by: Graham Snodgrass, Army Publich Health Center)

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Think you might need to lose a little weight?

You're not alone.

Even in the military, where maintaining physical fitness remains a job requirement and a key component of military readiness, thousands of service members struggle with being overweight.

Physical fitness is more than just a set of scores measuring your body-mass index, run times, or how many push-ups you can do. Optimizing your physical fitness requires a good diet, healthy lifestyle, strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance all working together.

Yet keeping a healthy body weight is correlated with all those components and is essential for long term health, fitness and personal readiness.

Injury Risk

About 17% of soldiers are considered obese, and this impacts readiness because being overweight increases the risk of musculoskeletal injuries by putting extra strain on the body, according to Army 1st Lt. Cara Adams, a registered dietitian and the chief of outpatient nutrition at General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital in Missouri.

Noncombat musculoskeletal injuries account for nearly 60% of soldiers' limited duty days and are cited in 65% of cases where soldiers cannot deploy for medical reasons, according to a recent study. These injuries affect readiness through increased limited duty days, decreased deployability rates, and increased medical separation rates.

Eating Better

Consuming a balanced diet rich in nutrients can "help prevent stress fractures and other anomalies that prevent military personnel from being ready for duty," Adams said.

Good nutrition goes beyond just calories and protein, she pointed out. "Our bodies were created to absorb and use nutrients from whole foods."

She suggested service members "start with the basics" by simply taking an honest look at what they eat and drink every single day. "Are you setting your body and your health up for success by consuming a variety of whole foods?" she asked.

Whole foods are foods that are not heavily processed or refined, like fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, whole grains, meat, fish, and eggs. "The more of these types of foods that end up in your diet, and the more variety in your diet - the better," Adams said.

"Unfortunately, our current food environment seems at odds with healthy eating," she said. "The evolutionary discrepancy between our brain's desire for calorie-dense foods to ensure survival and the ultra-processed food, sedentary living, and stressful lifestyle of today's culture creates the perfect storm for constant cravings, weight gain, and poor health."

Moreover, many fitness-oriented service members are focused more on cure-all dietary supplements rather than their core diet.

"Many soldiers are too concerned with which pre-workout supplement they should be taking or how much creatine they should be having when their diet primarily consists of fast food and empty calories. Prioritize food," Adams said.

A good rule is to avoid any "diet" that is not truly stainable, Adams advised.

"Many soldiers want quick fixes to weight loss. They want to go vegan or vegetarian simply to lose weight, yet chicken and fish are their favorite foods. I remind patients that they do not have to completely eliminate any of their favorite foods to achieve their health goals. In fact, I encourage them not to."

The most important goal is a healthy diet and regular physical activity. "Food is the fuel that energizes, strengthens, and helps the body recover from physical activity. A healthy diet and physical activity can help individuals not only achieve, but better maintain a healthy weight."

"It can help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers, as well as strengthen bone, muscles, and joints," Adams said.

Regular exercise and proper nutrition "have been shown to improve levels of happiness, increase energy levels, and increase your chances of living longer. It can also improve sleeping habits and sleep quality and help you build a stronger immune system," she said.

Changing Bad Habits

Leah Roberts said she tries to "reframe" her patients' triggers for bad nutrition that can contribute to weight gain. Roberts is a licensed dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist at the Army's Kimbrough Ambulatory Care Center at Fort Meade, Maryland.

Her primary recommendation is that overweight service members should cook their meals at home or eat at their installation's dining facility where there are freshly cooked hot meals and other healthy foods available three times a day.

Avoid meal delivery services, Roberts suggested. During the COVID-19 pandemic "we've created a new culture of fast food and delivery service" that leads to unhealthy eating, she said.

Too much work and after-work or after-school activities frequently lead to settling for comfort foods or convenience foods because there just doesn't seem to be time to shop for healthy foods, Roberts said.

Her second recommendation is to "avoid sodas, juices and sweet tea." They are full of sugar and empty calories.

Tip number three on Roberts" list: "Have a plan."

"People struggle the most about how to have food that is nutritious, easy to have on hand, and easy to prepare during busy weeknight schedules," she said.

Her most important component, she said, is to encourage small goals that are modifiable but consistent.

For instance, she makes her patients' first goal to lose 5% of their body weight. "I deal with people who weigh 220 or 230 pounds. When they calculate how many pounds to lose to get to that first goal, they say, 'I can do this.'"

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Last Updated: February 24, 2022
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