FORT EUSTIS, Va. -- In addition to physical exercise, proper nutrition plays a major role in overall health, fitness, and training for the Army Combat Fitness Test, says Maj. Brenda Bustillos, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command dietitian.

"It's important for Soldiers to recognize the impact proper nutrition has on them," said Maj. Bustillos. "From how they get up and feel in the morning, how they recover from an exercise, how they utilize energy, and whether or not they have energy at the end of the day -- proper nutrition is powerful, and stretches far beyond what we were taught as kids."

Dietary decisions affect every Soldier's individual physical performance differently, too, she said, and has the power to impact careers "whether that be good or bad."

Bustillos, a clinician who's seen patients for the last 15 years of her career, believes the ground rules for healthy eating are only that -- ground rules. "Every patient I've met with is different, and their needs are all different, too."

"Nutrition and dietary patterns are not one size fits all," she said. "A registered dietitian understands this, and understands the biomechanics of each individual, along with the unique metabolic concerns they may have."

She added, "How someone eats can be what makes or breaks them during big events, such as the ACFT. That's why it's important for Soldiers to take advantage of resources available to them, and meet with a dietitian about what works for them while training for the test."

ARMY COMBAT FITNESS TEST

The ACFT is a six-event, age- and gender-neutral, fitness assessment set to replace the Army's current physical fitness test by October 2020. It's the largest physical training overhaul in nearly four decades, and is currently in its second phase of implementation, with every Soldier slated to take the test as a diagnostic at least once this year.

The test is designed to link Soldiers' physical fitness with their combat readiness. Each event is taken immediately following the next, and aims to be an endurance-based, cardio-intensive assessment of overall physical fitness.

"The ACFT will require Soldiers to properly fuel their bodies to be fully ready to perform," she said. "The six events require many different muscle movements, with both aerobic and anaerobic capacities, making the fueling piece of fitness incredibly important -- as important as physically training."

Nutrition has often been attributed as "fuel for the body," she said. For example, proteins repair you, and give the body the building blocks it needs for everyday activities, carbohydrates give the body energy, vitamins strengthens the bones, minerals help regulate the body's processes, and water is essential for being alive.

But, nutrition also plays a role "in terms of preparation and recovery," she said. It doesn't matter if someone is training for a marathon or the ACFT, how they eat, or what they drink makes a world of difference.

For example, if a Soldier wakes up early on an empty stomach when scheduled to take the ACFT, that Soldier will lack the glucose needed for a good performance. This can make the short-term decisions as critical as the lifestyle choices made in the months prior to testing, she said.

"Consider an individual like an automobile," Bustillos said. "If an automobile starts running out of gas, it will begin running on fumes, and then be completely empty. That's how an individual [regardless of training leading up to the test] will perform, especially if they don't properly fuel their body before an ACFT."

Bustillos urges Soldiers to always "train to fight," meaning all their nutritional decisions, at all times, should holistically enhance their physical fitness, mental alertness, and overall health.

"If a Soldier only eats right the night before, or morning of an ACFT -- but not during the months of training leading up to it, they won't do as well on the fitness test [regardless of physical activity]," she said.

The best course of action, according to Bustillos, is eating right "day in and day out" while training. "Muscles are hungry, and they need fuel, so if you implement a healthy dietary lifestyle while training, then your body performs much better while performing."

Soldiers should consume a variety of healthy nutrients in their diet, she said. For example, carbohydrates, fats, dietary fiber, minerals, proteins, vitamins, and water should be taken in.

When a Soldier doesn't eat properly in both short- and long-term capacities, muscles will break down because the body is continually searching for the fuel it needs to perform, she said.

"The night before an ACFT, a Soldier should take in some proteins and carbohydrates," she said, adding that carbohydrates are the No. 1 source of fuel for the brain and body.

Examples include moderately-sized, protein and carbohydrate-rich meals, such as a grilled chicken breast and brown rice, followed by a light breakfast the next morning, ideally two hours prior to taking the ACFT, she said. However, the possibilities for what foods to eat are seemingly endless, as long as they fall in the food healthy groups.

"I understand not everyone wants to wake up two hours before a performance test just to eat," she said. "So, a light snack in the morning is also good. It can be a performance bar, a whole-grain English muffin, a banana, or just half of a muffin with smear of peanut butter -- something to not disrupt the stomach while providing a fuel source for the body."

With the ACFT around the corner, or if you have questions on how nutrition can enhance your lifestyle based on body type, Bustillos recommends you seek answers from a registered dietitian nearby.

"It's important to remember there's no such thing as bad foods, just bad dietary patterns," she said. "As long as we're eating well, taking good care of our bodies, and putting good things in it -- it's okay to have the scoop of ice cream, or sharing a tub of buttered popcorn with friends at the movies, those are certainly things that make life more enjoyable."