Healthy Eating

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Corporal Jay Deeming – Army Physical Training Instructor

As usual, as soon as you finally drift into a peaceful sleep, the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) is called upon. Intelligence reports describe a wedding party that may have persons of interest in attendance and so we wait. We wait for almost two hours while Task Force 66 (Special Forces) decides whether or not they want to come and crash the wedding party, or if Combat Team Bravo can knock on the door instead.

It’s after midnight in the Mirabad Valley, Afghanistan, when we finally set off over the river. Three hours later, after apprehending the persons of interest, we are hitting head to pillow. We have a scheduled patrol four hours later that will last most of the following day. Most in our section are carrying between 40 and 50kg’s outside the patrol base. Our brick of four will then do Physical Training (PT) for two hours in the afternoon. Then we’ll have a night of sentry duty with our partnered Afghan National Army soldiers (ANA). 

This introduction is similar to just about every veteran returning from the Middle East Area of Operations in the last fifteen years. What very rarely get’s a mention is the methods soldier’s used to stay hydrated, to recover, to refuel the body and stay healthy to do their job.

In my current career as a Physical Training Instructor (PTI) I am often asked for advice on diet plans, diet recommendations and for “the secret sauce” with regards to healthy eating. So let’s dive in head first.

Unfortunately, having the best information does not guarantee positive decisions or behaviour. The doctor or nurse that smokes cigarettes has all the information available to them on the health risks associated with smoking, it is a decision made ‘in spite’ of these risks they choose the harmful behaviour.

If your lifestyle, and by that I refer to your work, life, diet, recovery, sleep and wellness are so severely damaged by a two week field exercise – you are probably doing something seriously wrong MOST of the time in barracks with respect to diet and it’s not necessarily that two week field exercise that is to blame.

  1. Try to eat healthy food MOST of the time when possible – We should all be going for an average level of diet that is good. Extremes don’t help anybody. Trying to count every gram and every calorie doesn’t sound sustainable and you will tear your hair out trying to be perfect. If you just worked 48 hours straight or conducted a massive training activity – enjoy some time off post activity and have a cheat meal.
  2. YES – fast food is pretty much all bad for you – This bears repeating simply for those that were hoping to hear that take away all the time was a good thing. It’s not. Once or twice a fortnight with family and friends is not such a bad thing. Four times a week will be terrible for you.
  3.  Don’t Drink Calories – It’s easy to ruin a “clean” lunch of chicken salad with a tall glass of sweet tea that has 400 calories. Your fluid menu has to be even narrower than your food menu: water and coffee. That’s about it. You can add lemon/lime or calorie-free flavouring to your water, if needed.
  4.  Don’t restrict calories – just eat clean – Eat clean, but eat as much as you want. Whole foods are nutrient rich and will fill you up quicker than refined foods. You don’t need to be hungry, but you can’t eat crap to satisfy yourself.
  5.  Fuel for performance – Day to day eating is different than the nutrition required whilst on deployment or operations in a high intensity, high stress environment. For the latter you’ll need carbohydrates to burn if you’re headed out on a long run, long pack march, or three day cordon and search task. Energy gels and electrolyte drinks/tablets are designed specifically for endurance types of events.

If you play around with glucose gels, follow the directions on the package (generally 1x before training and one every 45 minutes during) and head out for your run or pack march. You don’t need gels for regular gym-based training, including work capacity efforts. Remember, if you are training for an activity that you won’t have access to the gels – train like you’ll have to fight, gel free.

Food should be an enjoyable part of life. An irony of the healthy eating debate is that the resulting physical wellbeing that results is objectively better than the alternative of being overweight. Not to mention the myriad of health problems that stem from a high sugar, highly processed diet. For those in the military the more important responsibility is performing at your best to achieve mission success.

The simple answer is always best – eat what you can when you can if you are deployed to the field or on operations.

When you’re at home and you have the time – eat real whole foods, drink water and enjoy your time with your family and friends.

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