Food for Thought... About Nutrition, Performance, Resiliency and Recovery

Eating nutritious foods is good for us physically. But can nutrition affect our psychological health? Can what a person eats affect their mood? The military is actually very interested in nutrition—in fact, the topic is one of the Military Health System’s themes for March. Good nutrition can maximize a service member’s level of performance, improve their resiliency and play a role in medical recovery—and keeping their families healthy supports them as well.

Most service members have been exposed to nutritional education through programs like the:

The military even conducts specific research on nutrition, at places like the Military Nutrition Division of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine and the Human Performance Laboratory at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. For the best information on top performance, I like the Special Operations Forces Nutrition Guide. This comprehensive 225-page publication lists the key points of each chapter in the Executive Summary. For example, as noted in Chapter 5: Nutrient Timing and Training, eating within 45 minutes after working out accelerates recovery and restores energy for the next day’s workout. Being a physician, I especially liked the chapter on dietary supplements, as many supplements can be dangerous, or against military policy. Another good resource is the Warfighter Nutrition Guide.

Because of my work at T2, I wondered how nutrition fits into our mission of supporting behavioral health through technology. An article on T2’s AfterDeployment website describes how what you eat affects the chemicals in your brain, which influence your moods. Our free Mindfulness Coach mobile app describes how to apply mindfulness to better eating habits. But can nutrition help someone with depression? What about with a traumatic brain injury (TBI)?

Omega-3 fatty acids seem to have potential benefits in preventing heart disease and stroke. As a physician, I’ve always recommended foods high in omega-3 to my patients—foods like fish, nuts and green leafy vegetables (with the caution to not exceed daily recommended doses and to check with their primary care doctor if also taking prescription medication). There’s some research evidence that omega-3 fatty acids may help with depression when combined with other treatments, but not enough to warrant prescribing them as a treatment for depression.

However, a special 2014 issue of the Military Medicine journal was produced following a workshop called Nutritional Armor: Omega-3 for the Warfighter. An expert panel reviewed the scientific literature, the workshop presentations and comments from workshop guests, and felt there was strong evidence that omega-3 fatty acids might reduce depressive symptoms. They also felt that the benefits for TBI were promising. There’s also quite a bit of published information in medical journals regarding various nutritional therapies for the early stages of a TBI (from the injury through the first couple of weeks), and long-term recovery may depend on the care received during those first few weeks, including nutrition.

Nutrition also impacts the children of service members. As a parent, I know how difficult it can be to get some children to eat their fruits and vegetables—but as a doctor, I wondered if there was medical research that could help get children interested in a lifelong habit of good nutrition. I found some interesting studies with some practical recommendations:

  • Expose children to a variety of fruits and vegetables. Even the mere exposure to fruits and vegetables was found to be more effective than giving kids a reward for eating them. This means having a lot of different kinds of produce available, not just the ones you enjoy (if you give your child a fruit or vegetable you don’t like, don’t make a face; visual cues can influence acceptance). Exposure starts surprisingly early—research shows that a mother’s diet rich in variety during breastfeeding may improve the child’s chances after weaning. Plus, babies who are started early on solid food seem to better accept a variety of fruits and vegetables.
  • Don’t forbid certain foods. Withholding less healthy foods only makes the desire for them stronger, so allow them in moderation.
  • Make fruits and vegetables look appealing. Texture and appearance can make a difference. Raw fruits and vegetables seem to be more appealing to children than cooked ones. Combining new fruits or vegetables the same color as ones that kids like may increase their motivation to try the new item (though combining new fruits or vegetables with foods that kids dislike doesn’t seem to work).

So my immersion into the research out there on good nutrition shows that it can improve physical and mental performance, affect psychological health, and set children up for healthy habits for life. I hope you learned some new information; I know I did—I plan to try some new foods today!

Brian J. Grady, M.D., M.S., is a psychiatrist and the interim Director at the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2).

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Telehealth & Technology, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health & Traumatic Brain Injury, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


Read other posts by Dr. Brian Grady