FORT RILEY, Kan. -- When Soldiers enter the front doors of Cantigny Dining Facility on Estes Road, it's no accident the first food options they see are healthy ones.

"As soon as they walk in, they see baked fish, baked chicken, steamed vegetables and brown rice," said Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Bruenning, dining facility manager. "This is all your healthy options in one stop right here."

The sandwich bar, the salad bar, the grill -- it's all carefully placed to encourage Soldiers to make better choices. The idea behind the layout is that Soldiers will go for the first things they see. By the time they get to the less healthy options, their plates will be full and they won't want them.

Color coding food options

In addition to the change in the layout and an increase in healthy choices, Soldiers might have noticed green, yellow and red labels posted above each food item.

The labels and the layout are part of a Department of Defense initiative, which was unveiled at Cantigny when the facility reopened in August after a deployment. It is the only DFAC on Fort Riley to have implemented the program.

"Go for Green 2.0 is a program for labeling all of our menu items and developing choice architecture to help Soldiers eat healthier," said Nicolle Curtis, Chief of Nutrition Care Division at Irwin Army Community Hospital.

Each recipe made and served at the DFAC goes through a computer program. The result is a breakdown of every ingredient and the cooking method to determine how healthy the recipe is. It is then categorized into green, yellow or red.

The labels will help simplify the decision-making process for Soldiers who want to eat healthy but might not have the nutrition knowledge to know what to choose. For example, just because a dish has vegetables in it, it doesn't mean it will automatically be on the green list

"We could have a vegetable lasagna that could be green," Curtis said. "However, if that vegetable lasagna was something that had been processed or prepared in a factory and had additional sodium and preservatives to it -- that would make it yellow."

Fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, whole grain breads and a low-sugar yogurt parfait are examples of the green items.

"Our green foods are foods that will enhance our performance," Curtis said. "Yellow foods can be more processed, they won't help enhance our performance as much as the green foods."

As Soldiers choose their meal, they should be looking for 85 percent green choices, 10 percent yellow and five percent red. Or, they can just go with one red meal a week. The red meals are at the back of the DFAC and include items like chili dogs and cheeseburgers.

The labels also have a picture of a salt shaker to indicate the sodium level in the food.

"If Soldiers are outside performing in a hot environment, sweating a lot, then I would want them to have more sodium intake to help them maintain their electrolytes," she said. "Some people have hypertension or high blood pressure so we want them to see the low sodium food items."

So many choices
On Oct. 3, the lunch choices included the staples like a salad bar and short order items like cheeseburgers and hot dogs.

But Soldiers also had a choice of entrees and sides like a vegetable combo, chicken Parmesan, grilled chicken, grilled fish, brown rice or lasagna.

They could also choose a made-to-order sandwich with nearly all green choices. However, on the sandwich bar, there was one red label that stuck out.

"The red would be the cheese," Bruenning said. "Some items that you would think would be green really aren't once it's all broke down. We have coders in the building that actually sit down at the computer, we give them the product and it tells them if it's green, yellow or red."

A product like a slice of cheese is high enough in fat to land it in the red.

The salad bar isn't safe from the red labels.

"The salad bar is broken down into two leafy greens and then fresh toppings," he said. "Red will be your dressing."

He plans to start offering lower fat and lighter dressings and make the entire salad bar larger and add more toppings.

The salad bar was the first stop for many of the Soldiers who were walking in for lunch, including Sgt. Keith Estes, 1st Engineer Battalion, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division.

He said he is aware of the labeling system but doesn't pay a lot of attention to it because he already eats well. At Fort Stewart, Georgia, a former duty station, he worked with Soldiers on issues relating to health and recovery. Nutrition was a big part of that, he said.

"It's about the importance of nutrients and how it affects your overall performance," he said. "What you eat is what you get out of your performance."

He said Go for Green can help Soldiers who just want to grab a quick meal.

However, no matter how many labels there are or how the food lines are designed it won't make a difference if the flavors aren't there and if there is not adequate variety.

Staff Sgt. George Yeanue, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 1st Inf. Div., said that's not a concern. He went straight for the green options at the grill when he visited the DFAC for lunch.

He said he was familiar with the label system and it is a way for the Army to try to get the Soldiers to eat healthy. Although he enjoys the healthier options anyway, he does pay attention to the colored labels

Curtis was pleased to hear that. Because at the end of the day it's about readiness, she said.

"The number one reason Soldiers were evacuated from theater in Afghanistan was not trauma or (improvised explosive device) blasts," she said. "It was because of muscular skeletal injuries. Soldiers that are at a higher weight are at higher risk for muscular skeletal injuries. The Go for Green program helps them prevent putting on weight, manage their weight or lose weight. At the end of the day we are keeping Soldiers in the fight and stopping them from being evacuated."

On the horizon
Right on the heels of rolling out Go for Green, Bruenning said more changes are on the horizon in the form of additional choices.

"We will be implementing a new menu to help us get more of the Go for Green," he said.

"We're adding items including some that you normally wouldn't see in a DFAC; more plant-based items like eggplant Parmesan. More vegetarian options, we don't have a lot that we offer for vegetarians."

The new menu items and the new system to help Soldiers move toward the healthier choices are indicative of a changing philosophy when it comes to nutrition in the Army.

"Army nutrition used to be about giving our Soldiers that home cooked meal, providing more comfort food," Curtis said. "Now, it's definitely more of a focus on performance and looking at Soldiers as Soldier-athletes."