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HPRC Fitness Arena: Nutrition
The month of October is Military Health System’s Women’s Health Month. There are more than 350,000 female members of the military (16% of the total military force). While it’s important for all military members to consume nutritious diets, women have special nutrient needs: iron, folic acid, and calcium.
Iron. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency among women. Poor dietary intake of iron combined with intense physical activity can lead to fatigue, weakness, and pale skin—all signs of iron-deficiency anemia (IDA). Iron-rich foods include meat, poultry, fish, spinach, beans, and fortified cereals. Consume these foods with vitamin C–rich foods such as strawberries and oranges for better iron absorption. HPRC discusses other reasons for IDA in this article on “Iron deficiency.”
Folic acid. Women of childbearing age need enough folic acid to reduce the risk of birth defects. But even if you’re not pregnant, folic acid helps make blood cells that boost your immune system. Folic acid can be found in leafy green vegetables, beans, peas, and fortified cereals and bread.
Calcium. Compared to men, women are at greater risk for osteoporosis, in which bones become weak and are more likely to break. Women need to start getting more calcium at an early age to keep bones strong. Calcium-rich foods include low-fat dairy products, tofu, kale, and fortified cereals and juices. Vitamin D is also important to help the absorption of calcium. Read more about vitamin D in HPRC’s Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin.”
All of these nutrients can be found in supplement form, but as with any dietary supplement, consult your doctor first to determine if they are necessary and safe. For more information on supplements, read HPRC’s “Women's health and dietary supplements.” Remember, most people can achieve adequate intake of these nutrients with a balanced diet. Poor nutrition puts you at risk for injuries and makes it harder for you to perform at your best.
If you’d like to know more about women’s health, visit the Military Health System's web page.
Coconut water, the flavorful liquid found in young green coconuts, has become a popular drink. It is often promoted for a variety of ailments—from curing bad skin to resolving hangovers. But coconut water is also touted as a fluid replacement alternative. For this reason, some Warfighters choose coconut water over sports beverages because coconut water is “natural” and contains carbohydrates and key electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. However, not all brands of coconut water are created equal. In fact, they can vary considerably in terms of their nutrient content, so read product labels to be sure you’re getting the right amounts of nutrients you need for optimal performance. In addition, many kinds of coconut water contain fruit juice for flavor, which can increase the sugar and calorie content of the drink.
One of the biggest appeals of coconut water is its naturally high potassium content. While the potassium content is high, the amounts of carbohydrate and sodium in coconut water are sometimes very low, and individuals who participate in prolonged, vigorous exercise (longer than an hour) may need more carbohydrate and sodium for proper hydration. For more information about hydration needs, see HPRC’s infosheet on fluids and exercise.
For periods of exercise less than one hour, water is always your best choice—about 3–8 ounces every 15–20 minutes. But for longer periods of exercise, sports beverages are a good choice because they are specially formulated to replenish carbohydrate, sodium, and potassium lost during extended and/or vigorous physical activity. If you choose sports beverages, drink 3–8 ounces every 15–20 minutes to stay hydrated. Again, be sure to read the product label to make sure your drink has what you need, and nothing more. For more information about proper fueling, read An Athlete’s Guide to Nutrient Timing.
And what about that coconut water? There simply isn’t enough evidence to support the use of coconut water as a remedy for any condition. And although it’s a tasty beverage, know what’s in it so you can replenish what your body needs—no more, no less.
Many of us have seen foods labeled as organic, but most people don’t know what that means. In order to be considered organic, foods must be certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and meet certain standards. Generally, organic foods must be produced without the use of any artificial fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, sewage sludge, or genetically modified organisms. As a result, organic foods have become quite popular.
Because of the differences in production, organic foods tend to be more expensive than conventional foods. For example, the average price of a gallon of regular milk is $2.89, but the average price of a gallon of organic milk is $5.99. That’s more than double the cost, which may not be affordable for many people. For military families who prefer to buy organic foods, discounted prices may be available at their local commissary. Ask grocery stores and wholesale stores about military discounts and coupons. For those who qualify, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) allows organic fruits and vegetables to be purchased with cash-value vouchers. The eligibility of other foods is state-dependent, and each state’s approved food list can be found on USDA's WIC page.
The price difference between organic and conventional foods is clear, but the benefits of choosing organic are not as obvious. Organic foods are thought to be better for the environment and our bodies. However, from a nutritional standpoint, there is not enough evidence to suggest a clear benefit to purchasing organic foods over conventional foods. If pesticides are your concern, visit the Environmental Working Group website to learn more.
So, the next time you’re trying to decide between organic and non-organic, remember that nutritional differences don’t need to be a major factor in your decision because there don’t appear to be any. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is beneficial no matter which option you choose.
For more information on organic foods, check out USDA's website.
Roughly one in three children in the United States is considered to be overweight or obese. Children who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults, which can put them at risk for diabetes and other health conditions. The month of September is devoted to raising awareness about childhood obesity, with a focus on prevention.
We Can!® (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity & Nutrition) is a national movement sponsored by four National Institutes of Health organizations to help children from ages 8 to 13 remain at a healthy weight. The website has specific information and educational resources geared toward the individual, family, and organizations. See HPRC’s Family Nutrition resources for more information and this HPRC card for easy reminders. For more about the exercise aspect of overcoming obesity, check out the Family & Relationships article from earlier this month.
For some people, eating certain foods can cause serious allergic reactions, even death! The most common food allergens are milk, eggs, fish and shellfish, tree nuts (such as almonds, walnuts, and pecans), peanuts, wheat, and soy. Other food allergies are possible, so it’s important to read food labels for ingredient information if you are at risk. Click here for more information.
Chia seeds have become a staple in many grocery stores, given their nutritional value and recent attention as recipe ingredients. But will consuming this seed cause a positive drug test? HPRC has a new OPSS FAQ to answer this question, plus other information about chia seeds and what to avoid.
School has started, and the scramble to come up with interesting and appealing lunches for your children probably has, too. If you find you’re bored with the “ham sandwich, apple, and a cookie” routine shortly after the first bell, imagine how bored your child’s taste buds will be in a few weeks! Keeping your child interested in healthy eating is as easy as ABC (and D).
Adventure: Offer your child some variety. Choose high-fiber, whole-grain tortillas or breads for sandwiches and opt for tasty spreads such as salsa, hummus, or pesto for extra flavor. Lean roasted meats such as chicken or turkey are healthy, lean sources of protein; or try fat-free refried beans for an appealing vegetarian option. Tuck some lettuce and tomatoes in for fun, flavor, and nutrients. (Keep wraps and bread from getting soggy by wrapping veggies in meat slices.) Your child doesn’t care for the taste of whole-wheat breads? No problem. Whole-grain white-flour wraps and breads offer lots of fiber but have the taste and look of traditional white-flour choices.
Butters: If nuts aren’t off limits at your child’s school, try something different than the typical peanut butter and jelly: Almond or hazelnut butter topped with fresh fruit such as bananas or mango slices, or fruit spreads such as marmalade or apple butter. Nut butters are great sources of protein with healthy fats and don’t require refrigeration—a plus if cold storage isn’t available.
Cut-ups: Cut up fresh fruits and vegetables the night before and add some to your child’s lunchbox. Cantaloupe pieces, pineapple chunks, and kiwi slices are popular with kids and full of vitamins and other nutrients. Toss in some cauliflower or broccoli florets with a side of pre-packaged dip or salsa. If you’re short on time, pre-cut fruits and veggies are available from your local grocer, but they may be more expensive.
Dessert: Oatmeal cookies, dried fruit, or low-fat yogurt (if kept at 40ºF or less) are terrific, healthy choices.
Let your child dictate just how adventurous his or her lunchtime options should be—they might surprise you! For more great lunchtime ideas, the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge Cookbook features 54 kid-friendly recipes. And remember: Safety first! Keep lunchboxes clean and cool (store in the refrigerator overnight) and provide a moist, cleansing towelette in your child’s lunchbox so he or she can wash up before eating.
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.
Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS) is a joint military initiative between the Human Performance Resource Center (HPRC) and the Department of Defense (DoD) to educate service members and retirees, their family members, leaders, healthcare providers, and DoD clinicians about dietary supplements and how to choose them wisely.
OPSS has partnered with Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (NMCD) to provide all DoD personnel with access to evidence-based information on dietary supplements, including Natural Medicines Brand Evidence-based Ratings (NMBER)®.
Now there is an Operation Supplement Safety & Natural Data (OPSS & ND) app available that can help you make an informed decision by giving you:
- Dietary supplement safety and effectiveness (NMBER) ratings.
- Interaction ratings between drugs and natural medicines, known as “adverse reactions.”
- Effectiveness ratings for natural medicines by medical condition and more.
To access the app you must first visit HPRC’s link to NMCD and sign up for your free account. Click on the Warfighter version and use your valid .mil email address. Once you’ve created your free account you will have access to the full version of the app. Up-to-date reviews of commercially available products, Natural Medicines Brand Evidence-based Ratings (NMBER)® for commercially available products, an Effectiveness Checker, and more will be at your fingertips.
If you have questions, please use the “Ask the Expert” button on the OPSS home page.
Whether you are an endurance or strength athlete or doing a bit of both to stay in fighting shape, you’re always looking for the optimal amount of protein for your daily needs. How much you need depends on activity level and body weight. See HPRC’s new Protein Infosheet to determine the amounts that are right for you. And for information about what to eat before and after workouts, see HPRC’s Athlete Guide to Nutrient Timing.