Skip to main content

Precision Nutrition Needed for Healthy Military Muscles

By Allan Maurer, NCBiotech Writer

Eat colorful meals and make sure you get enough choline.

That’s the key advice two nutrition experts offered during lunch at the Medical, BioMedical & BioDefense: Support the Warfighter symposium in Chapel Hill last week.

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s Bio Defense initiative and numerous other sponsors helped the North Carolina Military Business Center develop the program.

ASU's human performance lab at the NC Research Campus in Kannapolis.

The recommendations came from scientists working at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis: David Nieman, Dr.PH, FACSM, director of the Appalachian State University Human Performance Laboratory; and Steven Zeisel, M.D., Ph.D., director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Nutrition Research Institute. The tips were among several surprising findings they served up as their listeners ate chicken, mashed potatoes, BBQ, baked beans and greens.

The kind of heavy exertion military personnel experience in training or on the battlefield, for instance, “has a profound, acute effect on human immune function and metabolism,” Nieman said.

“The immune system reflects the stress of heavy training and goes through a downturn,” he explained. On the other hand, 45 to 60 minutes of regular daily exercise actually stimulates the immune system. “It needs activity to operate at an optimum level.”

Carbohydrates needed during exertion

Decades of research has shown that the most important nutritional support for warfighters (or anyone else experiencing heavy exertion) is carbohydrates. “If they are ingested before and during exertion, performance is improved, there is less inflammation, and stress hormones are decreased,” said Nieman.

So, one of the best things you can do to avoid negative consequences of heavy exertion is to eat a banana or other fruit. “Bananas have vital chemicals, dopamine, vitamin C, and polyphenols. More than 20 studies have shown you have better anti-viral defense when the blood has a lot of polyphenols,” Nieman said.

Fruits and berries contain the most polyphenols. Vegetables have them too, with spinach and artichokes high on the list. Coffee, dark chocolate, and red wine also contain the helpful phytochemicals.

Colorful berry, vegetable skins provide value

The rich colors in the skins of berries, fruits and vegetables contain these bioactive compounds to protect the contents and seeds of the plants.

These compounds also decrease the Cox 2 pathway, doing the same thing aspirin or Ibuprofen does, “So it can be an aspirin substitute,” Nieman said. They don’t “load” like a pill, however and should be consumed daily.

Exercise after eating a serving of polyphenol-rich blueberries actually helps bacteria in the colon break the food down and produce more helpful substances. “Eat some blueberries and go for a power walk and you’ll get a bigger bang for each blueberry,” Nieman recommended.

“People with a lot of color in their diet have 30 percent less mortality over 12 years. There is also a strong correlation with less neurodegeneration and weight gain.”

Freeze dried fruits of the sort sometimes included with cereals are polyphenol rich, but beverages seem to break them down, he noted. Studies found that there were no polyphenols left in green tea in plastic bottles.

Nieman said federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-sponsored researchers are working on developing a freeze-dried tablet to supply carbs and polyphenols to deployed soldiers.

The need for choline

Muscle breakdown is a serious problem in the military, said Zeisel. “It occurs in warfighters as they undergo exertion and limits their availability for duty,” he said. “Rhabdo is an important problem. At Paris Island, 3 percent of the recruits are hospitalized with it a year.”

Rhabdo, or Rhabdomyolysis, a serious syndrome due to a direct or indirect muscle injury, results from the death of muscle fibers and release of their contents into the bloodstream.

The cause is often roadblocks in the metabolism caused by spelling differences in the genetic code. Called SNPs, these “spelling errors” can increase susceptibility to low choline in the diet.

Choline is necessary for muscle and liver and fetal development. It’s found in milk, eggs, and fat-rich foods, and most Americans don’t get enough of it, he said. Young women with high estrogen levels can make it, but men and mature women have to get it from food.

A single egg will get you halfway to the daily requirement of 550 milligrams of choline, Zeisel said.

"Misspelled genes" can spell muscle damage

Men and women with the misspelled genes are much more susceptible to breaking down muscle when they exercise. In a study with Marines, men who had the misspelled genes were three times as likely to suffer muscle damage during training.

Zeisel got a hearty laugh from the audience when he said he wondered if choline would still be affecting warfighters in the future. He played a short video clip from Star Trek Voyager, in which a far-future holographic doctor examines a patient and says, “I have to stabilize his nerves, get me a choline compound.”

Zeisel said he has proposed collaboration with the military to look for a larger set of gene errors and then “invent a trial with a treatment to make this go away.”

For more information on Nieman’s work see: Research from the Human Performance Laboratory.

For more information on Zeisel’s work see: Nutrition Research Institute.

For more on the symposium see "Event Promotes NC Business, US Military Partnerships."

And "US Military Special Operations Forces Have Special Needs."

Add new comment

Refresh Type the characters you see in this picture.
Type the characters you see in the picture; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.  Switch to audio verification.