Deployment found to decrease quality of soldiers’ diet, affecting physical and cognitive performance
11/15/2018 // Frances Bloomfield // Views

Staying in peak physical and cognitive conditions are musts for any member of the U.S. Army Special Operations Forces (SOF). Consuming nutritionally dense foods is the best way for these men and women to maintain their health. But more often than not, SOF soldiers are deployed to environments that greatly hinder food transportation. The effects of this limited food availability is what a team of researchers assessed in their study, published in Nutrition Journal.

Around active-duty 107 male participants were recruited for the study. All of the participants received full medical clearance, meaning that each one was free of debilitating health conditions and diseases. During this portion of the study (referred to by the researchers as the “baseline”), the participants were tasked with answering a Block Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQ) and background questionnaire. Additionally, blood samples were taken and measured.

Of the 107 original participants, 50 had returned for post-deployment reintegration as scheduled. Just like during the baseline, the participants were made to answer an FFQ, as well as a follow-up questionnaire. Only 33 participants were able to complete the FFQ within the given time frame.

The researchers made use of the Healthy Eating Index-2010 (HEI-2010) to assess the results of the FFQs. Higher scores for each of the 12 Index components indicated greater compliance with federal dietary guidelines. Hemoglobin and glucose were evaluated with heparinized whole blood. Serum was then isolated from the remaining blood samples and assayed.


Critical changes were observed in the pre- and post-deployment scores of certain HEI-2010 components. Dairy, total fruit, whole fruit, and empty calories all dipped considerably during the post-deployment phase. Reduced average daily intakes were observed for total dairy, milk, and non-juice fruits. No substantial changes were noted for the other components (e.g. seafood and plant protein, refined grains, and total vegetables). Nonetheless, the overall HEI-2010 fell from 70.3 plus-minus 9.1 pre-deployment to 62.9 plus-minus 11.1 post-deployment.

Blood sample analyses revealed a serious drop in ferritin, the protein responsible for storing iron. There was an absence of iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia despite the reduction in iron stores. However, the researchers stated that the decline in iron stores could lead to severe health complications. Said complications ranged from cognitive performance degradation to poor physical work capacity. (Related: Iron deficiency increases risk of heart disease, but so does the wrong type of iron.)

Also worth noting was the increase in serum parathyroid hormone (PTH). As per the researchers, PTH can increase when bone density decreases or strenuous physical activity occurs. Either could have caused the elevated PTH levels. Regardless, the researchers stated that this increase was indicative of a higher risk of compromised bone integrity and skeletal injuries.

Based on their findings, the researchers concluded that operational deployment resulted in a general decrease in diet quality of SOF soldiers. This was due to the decreased intake of total dairy, milk, and total non-juice fruit, which in turn decreased the intake of vitamin D and calcium. Iron stores were negatively impacted as well since ferritin dropped. Increased serum PTH was likely to occur during deployment as well.

"These findings are important because the condition of deployment is chronic for SOF soldiers that deploy frequently," wrote the researchers. "Military personnel that deploy frequently should continue to be encouraged to consume fruits and vegetables, as well as adequate food sources of calcium and vitamin D (such as dairy products) and iron (such as meat and poultry) when in the U.S. and during deployment to attenuate potential declines in nutritional status."

Should perishable food items be limited in supply, the researchers suggested turning to alternatives such as dietary replacements and meal replacements. Their safety and efficacy under the conditions faced by SOF soldiers should be assessed, however.

Visit to read up on more studies relating to diets and nutrition.

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