A bedtime snack for basic trainees? Nutrition experts with the Military Health System say it's not coddling; it's a way to make sure the nutritional needs of new recruits are met, preventing injury today and promoting healthy warfighters tomorrow. The problem is many recruits arrive with poor vitamin D status, which might make their bones vulnerable, leading to fractures and subsequent high dropout rates.
"Stress fractures occur after unaccustomed activities or overuse, such as wearing boots or carrying heavy loads -- common during basic training," said James McClung, Ph.D., deputy chief of the Military Nutrition Division at the U.S. Army's Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts. "Up to 18 percent of recruits suffer from these stress fractures. Women beginning training with poor vitamin D status are particularly vulnerable."
McClung said about 60 percent who suffer these types of injuries end up dropping out of the military altogether, and those injured who make it through can suffer long-term health effects. A new fortified snack bar developed at Natick boosts calcium and vitamin D levels, making trainees less vulnerable to the fractures.
"Our test soldiers eat these bars each evening," he said, "and we are seeing marked improvements in their nutritional status and their bone health. An added benefit may be better performance during physical training before the next morning's breakfast." McClung said eating the bars reinforces education for choosing the right foods and learning when to consume them for the best performance.
The snack bar concept starts rolling out this year and will be fully implemented at all four Army basic training locations in 2018.
"Research showed compliance was better when calcium and vitamin D were provided in a fortified bar," said Army Maj. Kayla Ramotar, dietitian with the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, which oversees all initial military training for the Army. "Trainees don't get a lot of treats during basic training, and since this bar is made of chocolate, we know compliance won't be an issue. It's a lot more enticing than having to swallow a bunch of pills."
Ramotar said the Army will share outcomes with the other military services. The Air Force currently gives basic trainees a commercial protein bar after dinner and before lights out. Results show the extra nutrients help with morning physical training and, as with the Army, improves morale for the recruits. Ramotar said no specific goals or expectations have been put in place in terms of reducing the number or severity of injuries, but any reduction is welcome.
"It's like getting a flu shot; you take action to prevent something from happening. We want to give our soldiers a fighting chance in basic training," said Ramotar. "We recruited them in because we wanted them in; we need to maintain and keep them. If that means giving them something to help them succeed, then why not?"