NATICK, Mass. — Optimizing bone health and preventing musculoskeletal injuries in service members is a complex science. The U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine consistently takes on that challenge.
USARIEM is a U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command laboratory based in Natick, Massachusetts, the home of the Soldier Systems Center — the only place in the Army that touches every element of a soldier’s performance, from boots to increasing readiness and lethality. USARIEM’s Military Nutrition Division researchers work to understand the physiological needs of the soldier and then aim to meet those needs through nutrition guidelines and recommendations for food items.
Researchers took on the challenge of creating an innovative way to keep soldiers ready to train and fight. The result? The Performance Readiness Bar, fortified with calcium and vitamin D to create stronger bones.
Army research physiologist Dr. Erin Gaffney-Stomberg says coming up with the PRB was a lengthy process.
“USARIEM studied the effects of calcium and vitamin D starting about six years ago. The results of the first randomized, controlled trial were that those who consumed a bar containing calcium and vitamin D daily throughout basic training experienced greater increases in bone density compared to those who got the placebo,” Gaffney-Stomberg said.
Calcium and vitamin D have already been proven to be necessary nutrients to support bone health. However, the USARIEM researchers’ findings indicated that basic trainees needed higher-than-average amounts of calcium and vitamin D to support bone health during basic training.
USARIEM sent these results to the Combat Feeding Directorate from Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, a neighboring lab within Soldier Systems Center. While it was USARIEM’s job to make nutrition recommendations for the bar, it was the CFD’s job to make sure the bar could stand up to the rigors of the training environment, and meet safety standards while still tasting good.
The two labs developed the PRB, which provides the nutrients necessary to support physical readiness by fueling muscle growth and bone health.
The bar addresses nutritional deficiencies that some recruits come to basic training with, such as low vitamin D levels. The PRB works to correct those deficiencies.
Years of nutrition research and field studies by USARIEM scientists have demonstrated that higher levels of calcium and vitamin D in the body increases bone density in response to training. Eating the calcium and vitamin D-fortified Performance Readiness Bar supports a recruit’s bone health and thereby will hopefully reduce injury risk.
“With the help of an expert panel including the Center for Initial Military Training, the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence, the Defense Logistics Agency, USARIEM and CFD the bar was rolled out at four Army basic training sites,” Gaffney-Stomberg said. The program’s evaluation is ongoing.
So, how does it work?
“The bar is a standalone item and is offered once a day, each day,” Gaffney-Stomberg explained. “It’s essentially a fourth meal.”
Recruits are offered the bar every day. Each bar is counted and recruits get one per day, somewhere between dinner and before going to sleep.
Researchers from USARIEM’s Military Nutrition and Military Performance Divisions are now taking a detailed look at how daily consumption of the bar impacts recruits. In one of the largest data collections in USARIEM’s history, this multidisciplinary group of researchers is collecting bone and muscle data from 4,000 recruits as they go through basic training and onto the start of their military careers. The goal of this four-year study is to better understand who is more likely to get injured and exactly what factors can affect injury risk. One of the factors the researchers are looking at is whether the recruits ate the PRB, which will help them evaluate whether the bar makes a difference in injury risk.
When the researchers finish collecting data from all 4,000 recruits, their ultimate goal is to use these data, including the findings collected from evaluating the PRB, to provide guidance that will make a substantial impact on reducing injuries in our nation’s warfighters.
This nutritional advancement is cost-neutral for the military. An underutilized commercial energy bar was removed from dining facilities to make room for the PRB. The new bar is provided to the units where control of the bars is managed by cadre leaders and eaten outside of the dining facility.
Researchers aren’t simply working to provide recruits and soldiers with something that only tastes good; it has to make sense for their bodies as well. The PRB was created with evidence-based science and was designed to sustain performance consistent with the modernization goals of the Army. It helps recruits endure the pace of training.
And, the PRB isn’t just for soldiers. The Air Force is in the acquisitions process for a PRB or a similar product.