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HPRC Fitness Arena: Nutrition
Vitamin D is actually a hormone that your body produces when your skin is exposed to sunlight, earning it the nickname “sunshine vitamin.” It plays key roles in reducing your risk of many health conditions, including depression, cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and others. Spending 10 to 15 minutes outside on a sunny day with your arms and legs uncovered can provide nearly all the vitamin D most people need—challenging when you’re wearing a long-sleeved uniform or working inside all day—but you can also get some vitamin D in your diet from fatty fish (such as salmon), mushrooms, and many fortified foods.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance for most individuals is 600 IUs. People who have a vitamin D deficiency or certain medical conditions might require supplemental vitamin D but only under the supervision of their healthcare provider. That’s because excess vitamin D can be stored in your body, putting you at risk for toxicity. Over time, too much vitamin D can lead to irregular heart rhythms, kidney damage, and other serious health problems. If you take large doses of supplemental vitamin D and eat foods that are fortified with it, you could easily obtain more than recommended amounts.
Despite the risk for toxicity, nearly one-fourth of people living in the U.S. have low vitamin D levels, so all adults and children should have their vitamin D status checked by their healthcare provider. For more information about vitamin D, read this fact sheet from the Office of Dietary Supplements.
Weight-loss (diet) prescription medications are generally not permitted, but it’s important to check your service’s policy for specific conditions that may exist. Read this OPSS FAQ to find out more details, including links to specific policies. Also, be sure to check the OPSS site often, as we add answers to other questions about ingredients in performance-enhancing and bodybuilding supplements and how to choose supplements safely.
If you have a question about a particular dietary supplement ingredient or product, please use our “Ask the Expert” button located on the OPSS home page.
Do you have a “snack drawer”? Most people do, whether it’s in their office desk, gym locker, backpack, or family minivan. Snacking can be an important part of a healthy lifestyle, preventing late-afternoon vending machine runs or mealtime overeating and providing crucial nutrients prior to workouts or missions. Snacking can also ambush otherwise healthy eating plans, so it’s important to choose snacks wisely.
Ideally, your snack drawer should be stocked with a variety of protein and carbohydrate snacks to meet your needs during the day. A healthy snack provides 100 to 300 calories, depending on your weight and activity level.
Opt for lean-protein choices such as water-packed tuna (the kind in packets fit easily into a backpack, briefcase, or purse), peanut butter, and dry-roasted nuts such as walnuts, almonds, or pistachios. If you have a fridge available, boiled eggs (up to one week) or single-serving cups of hummus, cottage cheese, or Greek-style yogurt are great choices.
Healthy-carbohydrate options include instant oatmeal or grits, whole-grain crackers, and dried fruit. Choices for the fridge include fresh fruit and veggies—a great way to get the recommended amounts you need each day.
Take advantage of snack time to add some hydration to your day. Water (flavored ones can make drinking water more appealing), milk, soymilk, and almond milk are great choices. Herbal teas provide a caffeine-free alternative. Of course, juicy fruits such as watermelon, oranges, and kiwis are terrific too.
Being prepared can help you make good choices the next time a snack attack hits. But don’t forget about food safety: Be sure to keep an eye on expiration dates and toss things when they’re past their prime. For more information about healthy snacking, read these informative tips from MedlinePlus.
You’ve heard of “Army Strong?” As part of the Ready and Resilient campaign, the Army is rolling out its new Performance Triad as a “pathway to a fit and healthy force.” The triad consists of sleep, physical activity, and nutrition and provides online tools and information such as the Performance Triad Training Sessions (videos and websites packed with details to help you do everything from preventing injuries to choosing dietary supplements), cards with practical tips to become healthier and stronger, and a whole lot more. The Soldier's Guide is a good place to start; it includes numerous links to HPRC and other sources of information. Go ahead and start optimizing your health and performance today!
For more information on integrative practices and programs, check out HPRC’s Total Force Fitness domain.
Spices add flavor and color to many foods. But did you know they also might improve your performance while offering you protection from many diseases, including heart disease and cancer?
Your body’s cells continuously produce large quantities of what scientists call “free radicals”—highly reactive molecules that can damage cells. Ordinarily, your cells also produce antioxidants to neutralize these free radicals. But exercise, stress, and environmental pollutants can cause an imbalance between your body’s antioxidants and its free radicals. That’s where spices can come into play.
Not only do spices such as cinnamon, allspice, oregano, and turmeric (and others) demonstrate high antioxidant activity, scientists think they might actually help your body produce its own antioxidants. Some research suggests that eating spices as part of a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can prevent inflammation (a key player in the development of many diseases) and protect your body’s cells from damage caused by free radicals.
Get creative! Sprinkle a little cinnamon over your morning oatmeal, add a bit of allspice to a post-workout recovery shake, or stir some oregano or turmeric into your vegetable soup. A little bit goes a long way. Not only will you get a boost of flavor, you just might take a step toward better health and performance.
Food and health are hot topics these days. Just turn on the TV, pick up a magazine, or glance at the margins of your social networking site and you’ll hear and read about the supposed health benefits of dietary supplements containing this or that food component and the promises that they will “burn belly fat” or some similar claim.
Many of these promising food components belong to a group of compounds referred to as phytochemicals—chemicals produced by plants as a means of protecting the plants from various diseases.
Interestingly, when you eat plants (such as fruits and vegetables), the phytochemicals they contain might protect you from disease too. Researchers have found that people who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables have lower rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and many other diseases. Scientists haven’t discovered exactly how these compounds work to protect us, but they have discovered that they seem to have a synergistic effect. That is, the compounds seem to work better in combination, especially when they are supplied in their natural form—whole foods. Consuming isolated single compounds, as in dietary supplements, rarely has the same beneficial effect as eating the whole food. See these resources about fruits and vegetables and how they may impact your overall health.
Focusing on single nutrients (in pill form) is not only expensive, it just doesn’t offer the promise that a balanced, varied diet can. Focus on food, instead. For more information about the benefits of food versus dietary supplements, check out this OPSS brochure, “Nutrition: Fueled for Fitness.”
Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight can be a challenge, especially when trying to juggle the demands of active-duty service, deployments, family, and life in general. Knowing that the next weigh-in is looming can be stressful and can sometimes lead to eating behaviors that spin out of control to become a life-threatening eating disorder. But even if you don’t have a classic eating disorder, you might have what is called “disordered eating.”
“Disordered eating” refers to eating foods or having eating patterns that can lead to serious nutritional consequences such as deficiencies in key nutrients and electrolytes. It can compromise a person’s strength and/or stamina and lead to more frequent illness or injury. This could happen to a Warfighter, spouse, child, or other family member.
Examples of disordered eating include emotional eating, binge eating, night eating, highly restrictive dietary patterns, and avoiding foods considered “bad.” Some individuals use over-the counter products such as weight-loss supplements or laxatives; others participate in excessive exercise as a means to control weight. What starts out as a way to lose a few pounds or tone up could become a serious problem.
If you’re wondering if you practice disordered eating, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you eat in secret?
- Are you terrified of gaining weight?
- Are you always counting calories/carbs/fat grams or some other component of food?
- Do you think your identity and self-worth depend upon your weight and body shape?
- Do you exercise a lot (maybe too much) to maintain your weight or appearance?
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you might have disordered eating. It’s important to get help before your problem becomes more serious than you can handle. Nutritional and emotional counseling from professionals—registered dietitians, counselors, and therapists—can help. Support from friends and family is important too. See the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for more information on disordered eating.
Eating disorders require psychiatric, medical, and nutritional treatments and can have serious nutrition-related health consequences for a Warfighter, spouse, child, or an entire family. The cause of eating disorders is not well understood, but military members may be particularly susceptible due to the unique stressors associated with military life, and many military members with eating disorders may go undiagnosed. Treatment of eating disorders is complex and challenging. For more information, read HPRC’s InfoReveal on eating disorders.
Fall sports are under way for many adolescent athletes, making it important for teens to know what and when to eat and drink to be at their best. HPRC has created a resource—“Fueling the Adolescent Athlete”—to help your adolescent athlete fuel his or her body for optimal performance. This table provides general guidelines for what teens need to drink and eat before, during, and after practice or workouts.
Staying hydrated goes hand in hand with peak performance. But knowing whether you are hydrated can be difficult. Check out this urine color card from the U.S. Army Public Health Command to get an idea of what to watch out for. And see if your child’s school has the chart posted in the locker rooms and nurse’s office.
For more adolescent and family nutrition information, check out HPRC’s Family Nutrition section.
Nutrition experts at the Institute of Medicine—or IOM—of the National Academies of Sciences gather extensive information to make nutrition recommendations for the American public. One major result is known as the Dietary Reference Intakes, or (acronym number one) DRI. You might come across some of the DRI’s acronyms when reading how to fuel your body or considering a dietary supplement, so it’s helpful to know what they mean and where they came from.
The Estimated Average Requirements (acronym number two: EAR) are the average amount of nutrients that half of all healthy people need each day. EARs differ depending on life stage and gender. Remember, though, they’re simply an average. Scientists use statistics based on this average to calculate the Recommended Dietary Allowances (acronym number three: RDA).
The RDAs are the daily nutrient goals for essentially all healthy people, again based on life stage and gender. For example, the RDAs of some nutrients (such as vitamin C) for a 13-year-old boy are very different from those for a 25-year-old pregnant woman.
The Adequate Intakes (acronym number four: AI) are the—you guessed it—adequate daily amounts of nutrients that healthy people of a particular life stage or gender need. AIs are given when there isn’t enough scientific evidence for a stronger recommendation, that is, an RDA. For example, the IOM suggests an AI for one type of omega-3 fatty acids—alpha linoleic acid—of 1.6 grams per day for men and 1.1 grams per day for women because scientists just aren’t sure yet how much is optimal.
Tolerable Upper Intake Levels (fifth and final acronym, for now: UL) are the highest daily amounts of nutrients that you can consume without risk of toxicity. Many vitamins and minerals—even essential ones—can be toxic when consumed in excess. For example, because too much vitamin A can cause liver damage, a UL has been established for this essential nutrient.
So, if you remember nothing else, remember to get your RDAs and AIs every day, but don’t exceed the ULs!
The USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center provides links to the DRI Tables, but generally speaking you can meet all your daily nutrient intake goals (the RDAs and AIs) by following a healthy diet that includes lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. And be aware that recommendations do change. IOM reviews the most current nutrition science and updates the tables when necessary to keep up with the latest knowledge, which means better health for Warfighters and their families.