Probably the most neglected facet of health by today’s population, both civilian and military, is nutrition. Not only is a good diet critical to performance and recovery, but it will also affect your health in the long term. Along with not exercising, having a poor diet is one thing people tend to have an abundance of excuses for. “I don’t have time to cook” or “It’s too expensive to eat healthy” are both common justifications. Similar to being in poor physical condition, eating like crap will be detrimental to performance and can cause you to be a liability to others. Obviously, this is not what we want. You've got to really choose maximum quality foods and setting up an eating schedule. I will be the first to admit that it is easy to get caught up in fad diets and advice they are giving on television about the new “healthiest way to eat.” My advice is to do your own research and experiment to see what works best for you. I realize that most people don’t have time to do all of this research on their own and that options are sometimes limited in the military so I will just lay out a few simple dietary guidelines:
- Sugar is bad- No kidding, right? Unfortunately, it seems as though energy drinks are taking over the military. These drinks, along with soda and fruit juices, are packed with sugar and should have no place in your diet. Remove sugary foods and drinks from your home and you won’t consume them, buy maximum quality foods. It’s that easy.
- Meat, eggs, and vegetables should comprise the majority of your diet- There is no doubt that these foods are the most nutrient dense and will provide you with everything you need to be healthy.
- There is nothing wrong with carbohydrates- If you are active, you especially need them. Just make sure you are getting them from the right sources. That means unrefined and from low GI (glycemic index) foods that will not cause your blood sugar to spike and leave you hungry and tired twenty minutes after your meal. If you are unfamiliar with the concepts of insulin sensitivity and glycemic index, visit these sites for a better understanding: http://www.bodyrecomposition.com/fat-loss/insulin-sensitivity-and-fat-loss.html , http://www.glycemicindex.com/ .
- Try to avoid processed foods- Read food labels. Get maximum quality foods. The shorter the list of ingredients and the easier they are to pronounce, the better. I realize that in the military this is difficult, and near impossible when deployed or in the field. I will cover this topic later.
- The whole idea of “small meals throughout the day keeps your metabolism high” is complete garbage- There is absolutely no scientific evidence that supports this theory. If this is the manner in which you prefer to eat, then, by all means, go ahead, stick with that eating schedule. I personally find it inconvenient. As long as you are eating the right foods in the appropriate quantities, you will be perfectly fine eating fewer meals.
- The most important meal of the day is the one you eat after your workout- This meal should be the largest and should contain protein and carbohydrates. If possible, consume this meal within 1-2 hours of the completion of training in order to optimize recovery.
As previously stated, these are guidelines. I could go into more depth on each of these points, but we want to keep it simple and easy to implement under most conditions. Assuming your duty station’s dining facility serves bad food and small portions (as many of them do), the best way to maintain a decent diet is to bring your own food. Most people don’t have time to prepare food everyday so it’s simply more convenient to buy food in bulk and prepare a week’s worth of food ahead of time on the weekends. Here are a few notes on food preparation:
-Buy large quantities of meat and freeze whatever you don’t use
-Frozen vegetables have the same nutritional value as fresh ones and are quicker and easier to prepare
-If you can handle dairy, cottage cheese and whole milk are cheap sources of quality protein and calories if you are trying to gain weight
-Having a good selection of herbs and spices will give you a lot more options and keeps meals from getting repetitive.
I’ve found that on deployment and in the field, there are a few foods that are easily portable, won’t spoil, and are relatively nutritious: tuna/salmon/chicken packets, jerky (beef is cheapest), raw nuts, and meal replacement bars with low sugar content. Obviously, this is not a lot of choices, but it is nice to have something other than MRE’s which are packed with preservatives, sodium, and lots of artificial ingredients. In this article I have outlined the very basics of nutrition. I have explained why it is important and how to do it. However, if you do not have the discipline and self control to adhere to these principles or stick with an eating schedule, none of it will matter. I am not saying that you cannot treat yourself from time to time, but only that you do the best you can and always be aware of what you are putting in your body.