Service members need energy from food to complete missions and ensure the safety of the nation. Proper nutrition helps to build a medically ready military force. However, the rise of energy drinks and dietary supplements used by service members in recent years jeopardizes not only a healthy lifestyle, but also the combat effectiveness of the military.
The Military Health System’s Total Force Fitness framework encourages a healthy lifestyle for all service members, with nutrition as a key element. Poor nutrition affects many aspects of fitness, including mental and physical performance. Poor nutrition also contributes to obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes, all of which are major concerns in the military.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an increase of 73% in obesity among service members between 2011 and 2015. To combat obesity, service members use a variety of dietary supplements promoted for weight loss. These supplements are also used to improve performance and build muscle. But some supplements can do more harm than good.
According to Patricia Deuster, director of the Consortium for Health and Military Performance at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, no ingredient in dietary supplements has been proven effective in promoting weight loss.
“Certainly those who are obese or overweight are more likely to take weight-loss supplements to help ‘make weight,’” Deuster said. “But in addition to not being effective, the Food & Drug Association has found that some weight-loss products marketed as supplements contain hidden active ingredients, which can cause serious harm.”
While some ingredients in dietary supplements are difficult to find, stimulants are easy to spot in both supplements and energy drinks. Pre-workout and weight-loss supplements typically have stimulants and other thermogenic or “fat-burning” ingredients that raise the heart rate and blood pressure. Continued use, however, can keep blood pressure at levels well above those seen before taking the dietary supplements. Too many stimulants can also result in headaches, jitters, and problems sleeping.
The long-term side effects of energy drinks are unclear, according to Deuster. But, both artificially sweetened and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption has been associated with type 2 diabetes mellitus risk.
“For the most part, energy drinks contain sugar or artificial sweeteners,” Deuster said, “so they could easily contribute to both weight gain and diabetes.”
Karen Hawkins, a registered dietitian with the department’s Military Community and Family Policy office, recommends that service members turn to foods like fruits and vegetables for energy before trying a dietary supplement or energy drink. These foods are rich in nutrients like fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
“If you’re making healthy choices in your life, you’re probably going to find your energy levels going up in general without energy drinks,” Hawkins said. “Using energy drinks and supplements to try and make up for not eating healthy can lead to a reduction in performance rather than improvement.”
Deuster agrees. “Dietary supplements are intended to do just that: supplement the diet, but if the diet is healthy and provides sufficient energy and nutrients, then a dietary supplement is likely not needed.”
Service members having a bad reaction to dietary supplements or energy drinks while deployed can disrupt unit cohesion and compromise mission success. This fact makes nutrition safety in the military, from boots on the ground to the highest ranks of leadership, a priority.
Resources like Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS) keep people up-to-date on supplement ingredients and how to safely add them into the diet. The website has an “Ask the Expert” button so that a service member can ask a question about supplements and get an evidence-based answer.
The Human Performance Resources by CHAMP website also has many resources for educating military teams and commanders. Deuster recommends that commanders and unit leaders speak with their units about nutrition safety. Research shows that personnel are more likely to make healthy behavior choices after an intervention. USU’s Project Fit4Duty includes a six-hour set of verbal and written exercises to help service members discuss the costs of obesity, an unhealthy diet, and sedentary behaviors. The exercises also tout the benefits of leanness, a healthy diet, and physical activity.
Service members should speak with their health care providers and check out OPSS to learn about the pros and cons of energy drinks and dietary supplements. The Department of Defense Nutrition Committee’s Position Statement on Energy Drinks also gives DoD guidance about energy drinks.
For more information on how dietary supplements, energy drinks and nutrition impact Total Force Fitness, visit the nutrition webpages at Health.mil and CHAMP’s HPRC nutrition webpages.