Filed under: Diet
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.”
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.
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.
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.