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HPRC Fitness Arena: Nutrition
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.
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.
For optimal health and performance, Warfighters should try to eat at least six servings of vegetables (about three cups) every day. It’s tough, though, when you really don’t like vegetables. Here are some tips to help even die-hard veggie-haters work a few vegetables into their diets:
- Add vegetables to foods you already love! Macaroni and cheese, pizza, spaghetti sauce, soup, and omelets are great vehicles for spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, and other dreaded veggies. (Many of the vegetables in the MREs are hidden this way!)
- Grill your vegetables! Grilling adds those familiar flavors that we love so much. You can even baste them with your favorite low-fat marinade for extra flavor. Too cold to grill outside? Roasting vegetables in the oven makes many bitter-tasting vegetables taste sweeter.
- Drink up! You can find lots of tasty vegetable juices in grocery stores nowadays. Look for lower-sodium versions or the vegetable-fruit juice blends. You can even custom-blend your own by mixing bottled carrot juice with your favorite fruit juice.
- Get adventurous! Just because you hated something as a kid doesn’t mean you’ll feel the same way about it as an adult. Give vegetables another try—you might be surprised how tasty they really are.
Of course, these tips work for picky family members, too. How many vegetables should they eat? That depends—on their age, sex, and activity level. This chart from the USDA will guide you.
September is National Whole Grains Month! Whole grains are natural sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients that are essential for good health. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 recommends that at least half of your grain choices should be whole grains.
Try these tips to add more whole grains to your meals and snacks:
- Start with a hearty breakfast that features whole-grain cereals such as steel-cut oats, bran flakes, or shredded wheat. Eat breakfast on the run? Try switching to whole-wheat toast or whole-grain bagels instead of plain bagels. Substitute low-fat bran muffins for pastries.
- Lunchtime sandwiches using whole-grain breads or rolls are full of flavor and fiber. Swap out white-flour tortillas with whole-grain corn tortillas.
- Dinner sides can really shine when you replace white rice with exotic black or red rice or wheat bulgur. Add wild rice or barley to soups, stews, and casseroles. Whole-grain pastas give a nutty flavor to many dishes.
- Snacks can feature whole grains too: popcorn, graham crackers, or granola bars are tasty, healthy options.
- And don’t forget dessert: brown rice pudding, oatmeal cookies, or whole-wheat baked goods are just the ticket—wholesome and satisfying.
Remember, eating a variety of whole grains not only ensures that you get more health-promoting nutrients but also helps make your meals and snacks more interesting. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has more information about the health benefits of whole grains and even more tips on how to include them in your diet.
The Human Performance Resource Center is here to serve Warfighters and their families, commanders, and healthcare providers. If you’ve visited before, you probably know that we focus on “total force fitness.” But do you really know what that means—or how HPRC got started? If you’re curious, check out this PDF that describes HPRC, what we do, and the vast amount of information we cover. In addition, you may have noticed that we use the term “human performance optimization” throughout our site; this article also explains what that means.
The physical demands placed on the Warfighter in training and operational settings can take a toll on joints and bones over time. Following a healthy diet can help reduce your risk of many diseases and maintain healthy joints and bones. A few nutrients have been shown to support joint and bone health, including calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C, and selenium. Consuming too much alcohol has been shown to have a negative effect.
Calcium and vitamin D work together for strong bones and overall bone health, because vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. Men and women ages 19–50 should try to get 1000 mg of calcium daily; older women need 1200 mg daily. Good sources of calcium include milk, yogurt, fortified orange juice, and green leafy vegetables. Your body produces vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight, but you can also get it in your diet from salmon, tuna, and fortified dairy products. Adults need about 600 IUs of vitamin D daily.
Vitamin C is essential for cartilage—the material that cushions your joints and prevents bones from rubbing together. Men need about 90 mg and women need about 75 mg daily, roughly the amount in a large orange. You can get vitamin C from citrus fruit, broccoli, and tomatoes.
Dietary selenium (a mineral) also may play a role in bone health. Adults need about 55 mcg of selenium daily. Selenium is found in nuts (especially Brazil nuts), tuna, and sunflower seeds.
Drinking too much alcohol negatively affects many of the body’s systems, including the bones and joints. Alcohol can cause weight gain, increase risk for osteoporosis and stress injuries, and damage cartilage. Limit your alcohol consumption to one drink per day for women and two for men. A drink is defined as one 5 oz. glass of wine, one 12 oz. beer, or one 1.5 oz. shot of liquor.
Inflammation can play a role in joint conditions such as arthritis, so a diet that helps reduce inflammation might be beneficial in protecting your joints. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats (found in nuts and fatty fish such as salmon) not only reduces inflammation, it can also help maintain a healthy weight, which is essential to preserving joint health.
Excess body weight stresses joints and increases wear and tear. Following a diet that is lower in fat and calories can help maintain or reduce body weight, preventing additional joint stress. For more information about healthy joints, read the fact sheet from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Also, Chapter 17 of the Warfighter Nutrition Guide, “The High Mileage Warrior Athlete,” provides more information on maintaining joint and bone health.
The Department of Defense (DoD) Safety Review Panel published their findings on DMAA in a recent report now available through HPRC. The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs asked the Safety Review Panel to evaluate the safety of DMAA-containing dietary supplement products. The Panel has recommended that the sale of DMAA-containing products be prohibited in all military exchanges.
HPRC maintains a list of dietary supplement products containing DMAA and periodically updates this list. The most recent version can be found on HPRC’s website. Note that, as of the FDA announcement in April 2013, DMAA is illegal in the U.S. as an ingredient in dietary supplements. For more information, visit the OPSS FAQ about DMAA. Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS) can provide service members and their families with information to make informed decisions about dietary supplement use. For the full DoD Safety Review Panel report, see the link on HPRC's Dietary Supplements web page.