Filed under: Diet
Sodium—a component of table salt—is an essential element. It helps your muscles and nerves function correctly and maintains the proper balance of your body’s fluids. However, too much sodium in your diet may increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and certain types of cancer.
The average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium every day, mostly in the form of salt. But the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults limit their sodium intake to just 2,300 milligrams per day—roughly the amount in one teaspoon of table salt.
The guidelines also recommend that certain “at-risk” groups limit their sodium intake to about 1,500 mg per day: adults over the age of 51, African Americans, and people who have high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease.
Recently, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) looked at the evidence supporting the current recommendations regarding sodium intake. IOM concluded:
- Research supports current recommendations to reduce sodium intake to about 2,300 mg daily.
- More research is needed to support the recommendation that those “at risk” should cut back to 1,500 mg or less a day.
Bottom line? If you’re in an at-risk group, speak to your doctor or registered dietitian about whether you should reduce your salt intake. For just about everyone else: Cut back on the salt.
How? Most of the sodium Americans consume comes from processed foods—tomato sauce, soups, canned foods, bread, and prepared mixes—but it can also come from foods naturally high in sodium—cheese and some types of seafood. Also, many restaurant foods are high in sodium, but sometimes you can request low sodium items. The best way to ensure a low sodium diet is to eat whole foods such as fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables; lean, unprocessed poultry and fish; unsalted nuts; whole grains; and low-fat dairy products such as skim milk or yogurt. For more information, check out this CDC web page.
For additional information and other conclusions from the study, see the news release (which includes a link to the full study) from the National Academies.
June is National Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Month. And it’s no wonder—during the warm summer months many fresh fruits and vegetables are at their peak. So take advantage of nature’s bounty and make an effort to include more fruits and vegetables into your family’s diet. Here are some tips to help:
- Start early: Top your morning breakfast cereal with fresh berries, bananas, or peaches for added flavor and nutrition.
- Add some crisp lettuce leaves and juicy tomato slices to a sandwich or wrap.
- Kids love foods they can “dip,” so encourage them to dip their veggies in a delicious, healthy fresh tomato salsa.
- Keep fresh veggies and fruits on a platter in the refrigerator so kids (and you!) can grab some any time—cooling off by the pool, reading a book, or cooking dinner.
- Go to a farmers’ market to find the freshest, in-season produce.
- Plant your own garden—or just a small tomato plant on the back porch. There’s nothing quite like homegrown fruits and vegetables.
- Have some dessert! Fruits are full of natural sweetness—the perfect way to round out a meal.
Eating fruits and vegetables may reduce your risk of cancer, diabetes, and many other diseases. To find out how many fruits and vegetables you and your family should be eating, use this great calculator from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has more information about the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables as well as lots of great tips to help you incorporate fruits and vegetables into your diet.
The purpose of the 2011 Department of Defense Health Related Behaviors Survey of Active Duty Military Personnel (HRB) is to assess the health practices of active-duty service members. Substance abuse, mental and physical health, and lifestyle choices are important matters, especially when you need to be at your best for the demands of military life. Certain areas of this study directly affect human performance, and results (as reported in the Executive Summary) show that health behaviors vary between services.
Physical Activity/Body composition
Here are some figures from the Physical Activity/Body Composition portion:
- Overall, service members have lower rates of obesity (as defined by BMI) compared to the general public.
- More than one-third of active-duty service members age 20 and older were considered to be at a healthy weight, which exceeds the Healthy People goal as well as civilian population estimates.
- 75% of active-duty members practiced moderate to vigorous physical activity in the 30 days prior to the survey, with Army and Navy personnel having the highest rates.
- Almost half of service members do strength training three or more days a week.
Physical health and fitness are key components to optimal fitness. While these numbers are encouraging, there is no doubt that a larger portion of the military should be at a healthy weight and fit enough to fight. Make fitness and weight management your priority for performance.
- Only 40% of all active-duty personnel surveyed get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night.
Sleep is an important factor in recovery. Poor sleep habits can take a physical and mental toll on your health, your relationships, and your performance.
Tobacco and alcohol
One area where the military could improve is in the use of tobacco products and alcohol:
- Almost one-quarter of service members reported smoking a cigarette in the 30 days prior to taking the survey, which is higher than the civilian population and the Healthy People objective.
- Smokeless tobacco use is also prevalent in the military with 12.8% of all service members using smokeless tobacco in the month leading up to the survey.
- Rates of binge drinking were higher in the military than in the civilian population and more prevalent in the Marine Corps than in any other branch.
Tobacco in any form is detrimental to your health. If you’re thinking about quitting smoking or would like to talk to someone about your alcohol use, there are lots of resources and professionals that can help you achieve your goal.
Stress and mental health
After more than a decade of ongoing war, troops have—and will continue to experience—significant mental stress as a result of their service. In general, 5-20% of service members reported high rates of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and/or other mental health concerns.
- The most common military-related sources of stress were being away from family and friends and changes in workload but included financial problems and family members’ health problems.
- Women reported experiencing personal sources of stress more often than men did.
- Those who drank heavily were more likely to report problems with money and relationships.
Drinking, smoking, overeating, and even attempted suicide are all negative coping factors when dealing with stress. The survey found that the most effective methods of coping were planning to solve problems and talking with friends or family members. Find out how to use productive and effective methods for coping with stress and mental health.
Nutrition and dietary supplements
Being fueled to fight is an important component for anyone in the military. Proper nutrition requires consuming healthy—and avoiding bad and potentially harmful—foods and beverages.
- According to the survey, active-duty personnel eat too many unhealthy foods such as snacks, sweets, and sugary drinks and not enough of the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables.
- More than one-third of personnel reported daily dietary supplement use.
What you decide to put in your body now may affect your performance and your career later. For more information on nutrition for combat effectiveness, read Chapter 15 of the Warfighter Nutrition Guide. And make sure you know what you’re putting into your body. Dietary supplements are not subject to pre-market approval by the FDA, and there are many ingredients that may do more harm than help. You can learn more about dietary supplements at Operation Supplement Safety. And for more information about the Health Related Behavior Survey, visit TRICARE’s webpage.
Some recent evidence suggests that probiotic foods can contribute toward a healthy population of microorganisms in your digestive tract (gut). But what exactly are probiotic foods?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), probiotic foods contain “live microorganisms which, when consumed in adequate amounts as part of food, confer a health benefit on the host.” In other words, they are foods that contain microorganisms (primarily bacteria and yeast) that may play a role in keeping the human gut healthy.
An astonishing number and variety of microorganisms—some good and some bad—occupy every nook, cranny, and passageway of our bodies. Most inhabit our digestive tract and play key roles in digesting food and digestive health. Maintaining the proper balance of good and bad organisms is essential. In fact, having more “bad” than “good” microorganisms is also associated with increased risk for short-lasting diseases such as colds and gastroenteritis and long-lasting diseases such as asthma and certain types of cancer.
More than 5,000 different strains of bacteria may reside in the average person’s digestive tract, which makes it hard to determine which ones might be good and which ones might be bad. But generally speaking, two strains seem to offer the greatest benefit to humans—Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Both can be found in many widely available probiotic foods.
Fortunately, it’s easy to find probiotic foods these days. Take a walk down the dairy aisle of your local grocery store and you’ll likely find yourself inundated with products promising a variety of beneficial health effects, many of which are attributed to the products’ probiotic content. Choices include traditional fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, and buttermilk as well as foods far from the dairy aisle such as sauerkraut, pickles, and miso (a soybean product).
Keep in mind that if you eat a greasy cheeseburger, fries, and a sugary soda followed by a yogurt “chaser,” it’s unlikely you’ll see much benefit from the probiotic organisms in the yogurt. The greatest benefits from eating probiotic foods occur when they are part of a diet that includes whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and low-fat sources of dairy and protein. For more detailed information, read “Oral Probiotics: An Introduction” from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Carnitine is a naturally occurring substance in the human body that helps cells use fat for energy. The liver and kidneys can produce carnitine from amino acids provided by the diet, but carnitine also comes from many foods, especially red meat, and is an ingredient in many dietary supplements and energy drinks.
Sometimes doctors use carnitine to treat certain heart conditions. Recent clinical trials suggest that carnitine supplements may help reduce many of the complications associated with heart attacks, such as chest pain and irregular heart rhythms.
But new research suggests that long-term consumption of dietary carnitine also may play a role in the development of atherosclerosis—“hardening of the arteries”—especially in people who eat red meat regularly. So what’s the bottom line? More research is needed to determine the risks and benefits associated with carnitine.
You can learn more about carnitine in HPRC’s Dietary Supplement Classification System.
Warfighters and family members looking to track their food choices now can use the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference (called The Standard Reference or SR). This nutrient data is widely used and has been incorporated into many smart phone “apps” and interactive websites. Of particular interest is the USDA’s SuperTracker, where users can customize their dietary plan and physical activity. For more information, read how to access this nutritional data.
Army researchers have developed a special method of meal delivery for U-2 pilots on long flight missions, which can sometimes last up to 12 hours. Pressurized suits and bulky equipment limit pilot movement and prevent them from opening their helmet visors—so feeding themselves until now has been impossible. Chefs and nutritionists in Natick, MA, teamed up to create meals that meet a pilot’s calorie and nutrition needs. The meals are turned into a consistency similar to baby food and delivered to the pilot by way of a metallic tube about the size of a tube of toothpaste. The containers fit into a port on the pilot’s helmet in a way that doesn’t interfere with the suit’s pressure. Watch this video to see these tube meals in action!
What are the favorites among pilots? Caffeinated chocolate pudding and chicken-à-la-king are the most popular. Other meals include beef stroganoff, key lime pie, applesauce, and sloppy joe.
It can be tough figuring out the truth about the health benefits of many natural products. One product that’s getting a lot of attention these days is green coffee beans. As a Warfighter looking for ways to optimize your performance or perhaps drop some weight quickly, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the marketing hype and claims, especially if it’s an appealing message. Make sure you get the facts.
Green coffee beans are the raw, unroasted seeds or “beans” of the Coffea plant. They contain a chemical called chlorogenic acid (CA) that supposedly offers some health benefits. Roasting reduces the amount of CA in coffee beans; as a result, green coffee beans contain more CA than the roasted beans you use for your morning coffee. Some research suggests that CA might prevent heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure, and help with weight loss. But it’s important to note that most of this research is preliminary, and there just isn’t enough evidence to say that CA will definitely help with any of these health conditions.
Although no serious side effects have been reported from green coffee beans in their natural form, some dietary supplement products containing green coffee beans have been found to contain undeclared drugs, insects, and mold. Of the 126 products containing green coffee beans ranked by the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, 40 have been assigned a rating of “1” or “2,” which indicates there are serious concerns about their safety and effectiveness. None have a rating in NMCD’s green zone, which suggests that there are some concerns about them all. Note also that green coffee beans are not always the only active ingredient, so be sure to check the product label.
It’s also important to note that green coffee beans contain caffeine. Side effects of consuming too much caffeine are all too familiar—difficulty sleeping, rapid or irregular heartbeat, nervousness, nausea, and vomiting. Pregnant and breastfeeding women, or those who have been diagnosed with certain medical conditions (including anxiety, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, or osteoporosis) should check with their doctor before consuming green coffee beans. For more information on caffeine, read the OPSS FAQ on caffeine.
Solid fats are solid at room temperature, come mainly from animal products, and are high in saturated or trans fats. Examples are butter, milk fat, cream, stick margarine, shortening, and beef, chicken, and pork fat. Some saturated fats increase blood cholesterol levels in the body. Oils are liquid at room temperature, and come from many different plants, and are good sources of heart healthy unsaturated fats. Examples are olive oil, canola oil, safflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, and peanut oil. Coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil are high in saturated fats and are considered solid fats. When using fats, replacing solid fats with unsaturated oils will provide essential nutrients to the diet and help lower blood cholesterol levels. Read about food preparation to promote health for more information.
It’s the New Year! If you’re already despairing about resolutions, keep in mind that making small changes in behavior that fit easily into your lifestyle are good options for family health and weight loss over time. For one month, try choosing three small habits to focus on changing that you can apply to any situation, whether you’re at home, overseas, or travelling. Try setting up email or calendar reminders if that helps you, or put up tangible reminders such as sticky notes around your house. To get you started, here are some ideas:
- Keep unhealthy foods such as potato chips, cookies, etc. out of sight so they are less tempting.
- Put down your fork and knife between bites.
- Portion out “snackable” foods that come in large bags/containers into smaller one-serving containers, so you don’t keep dipping in.
- Choose water over soda.
- Keep fresh fruit on hand to replace fatty, high-calorie snacks.
For more help, Military OneSource has a Health and Wellness Coaching Program that can help you lose weight and improve your overall fitness. Finally, for more information on making healthy food choices for you and your family, visit HPRC’s Family Nutrition section.