The problem with rations

Ali Macdonald, Founder and CEO, Resilient Nutrition

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The 21st century has seen tremendous advances in military hardware, from protective equipment and communications to lighter, more modular rifles, now referred to as “weapons systems” for their versatility and multi-functionality.

The art of war has been increasingly delegated to high-speed, special operations units made up of operators who are as much athletes as they are soldiers. We equip these units with the best gear and training, so why not the best food? In the area of tactical nutrition, the last great innovation was the self-heating MRE. And that was an improvement in packaging and preparation, not in nutritional content.

Based on our experience at Resilient Nutrition, we believe there is major room for improvement. It is our belief that an operational “nutrition system” should not only deliver sufficient energy, but critically enhance cognitive and physical performance, around the clock, across a range of operational environments whilst also supporting long term health.

The problem with rations

As long as armies have existed - soldiers, military leaders and logisticians have wrestled with the same questions:

  • How do we ensure our army is fit to fight?
  • How do we sustain our people on the move and at reach?
  • How do we maximise performance on the battlefield?
  • How might we tackle the timeless enemies – sleep loss, fatigue, stress and fear?

Current rations are based on a one size fits all approach, they do not consider individual nutritional requirements or preferences, they are not flexible enough to meet the varied physiological demands of modern operations, they do not consider the functional requirements of operating at night or in extreme environments, and critically they remain overweight with a dependence on poor quality carbohydrates.

The nature of military work is unpredictable, the modern operator is required to concurrently execute multiple cognitive and physically demanding tasks. Patterns of life are volatile and current solutions do not recognize that different activities require different fuel systems and that nutrition systems need to adapt to fundamental, cyclical changes in metabolism over a 24 hour period that impact the effectiveness of personnel.

Whilst some advances have been made to meet urgent operational requirements e.g. the Patrol Pack was developed specifically for the relatively short, sub 12 hour patrols of Op Herrick, the formulation, function and form of items in ration packs has barely changed.

Fuelling the Mind and the Body

In 2013, I worked with Lt. Col. Robert Herring CBE to create a framework that would help enable military personnel to thrive and not just survive in an increasingly VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) operating environment. We called it Optimal Human Performance.

The framework was born from the combined experience and approaches taken by elite sports, special forces, record breaking explorers and many of industries highly influential leaders. Every time we dug into performance in the field, it was clear that by optimising cognitive performance we could almost inevitably sustain higher levels of physical performance for longer – the two were inseparable. By keeping the Mind in the game longer, we could keep the Body and Spirit in the game too.

Photo Credit: Sergey Kamshylin

Photo Credit: Sergey Kamshylin

Digging in to Chrononutrition

In 2019 we trialled the essence of a new rations system with a pair of athletes who wanted to break the world record for rowing across the Atlantic. We designed an “optimised” nutrition strategy for maximizing physical and cognitive performance for weeks of pretty much continuous 24 hour activity. These guys were looking down the barrel of up to 55 days of continuous shifts on the oars, day and night, fighting their way across the North Atlantic.

We had to come up with a solution that not only delivered the 6,000+ calories per day they required but more importantly, minimised the impact of the damage the guys would be doing to themselves, as well as maintaining their ability to make clear decisions when they were absolutely exhausted.

The centuries-old struggle to maintain alertness on the battlefield has historically led to the use of drugs like amphetamines that allow a soldier to “fight through” sleep and exhaustion – at least while under the influence. But recent sleep and nutrition science has exposed the harm of such a strategy and the value of working with the body’s natural sleep rhythm rather than trying to blot it out.

One of our specific areas of research has been chrononutrition, essentially the science of what and when you eat relative to the time of day, the dark light cycle and your movement through time zones. So, we used that knowledge to prescribe different foods and formats to match what they needed and could digest at different times of day. Higher carbs in the morning and higher protein in the evening, more liquids and pastes during the night than solids, hot food and drinks when body temperature is at its lowest (around 4am) and so on.

Max & Dave went on to break the world record with a time of 35 days, 7 hours and 54 minutes, beating the previous world record by 11 minutes after a gruelling 21-hour final push on the oars.

Fit for the future

Since then we have continued to evolve the system and contributed to trials that have delivered remarkable results. Royal Marine’s using the enhanced rations system demonstrated a 23% overall increase in operator performance. In a recent exercise simulating typical military operations, troops using the new system performed better both physically and mentally than those on the old system, and also performed better tactically.

They went on to perform better in a subsequent exercise than a fresh troop, demonstrating the benefits of improved resilience built into the new approach.

So, what will the rations systems of tomorrow look like?

Functional: rations will be ergogenic (performance enhancing), adaptogenic (stress reducing) and nootropic (cognition enhancing).

Lighter and more modular: we have reduced the overall weight and bulk of rations by nearly 50% in some cases whilst improving the energy and nutrient quality.

Integrated: individual items are optimised in terms of size, shape and packaging format to make them easier to use in the field and packs will be more compatible with load carriage systems.

Visual & tactile: we have developed a novel visual language and iconography to make it easy to know what, how and when to consume different items, especially at night.

Theatre specific: nutritional and functional demands are heavily dependent on operational environment – hot wet, hot dry, extreme cold, altitude etc. Adapting nutrition strategies to operational environments will positively impact mission outcome.

Adaptable & configurable: rations systems are going to be much more adaptable and controllable in terms of what gets delivered to units and to individuals – with shorter cycles between demand and supply and much more modularity.

Sustainable: more locally sourced raw materials, reduced end to end energy consumption, biodegradable packaging, reduced number of individual items in the pack, more multipurpose or reusable items, increased use of refillables.

Personalised: rations systems are going to be more personalised based on factors including gender, age, weight, dietary preference, allergies etc. and, in time, cater for individual biology.

Education and training: troops are more informed although generally the quality of nutrition advice is poor so, training and education is actually a massive part of the transformation.

They say that war and conflict often accelerate innovation. In the last year we have responded to multiple urgent operational requirements. I hope we have proven that change is possible; that it doesn’t need to take decades; that an interdisciplinary, human centric design approach coupled with rapid prototyping and trials with front line units can deliver impact and value at speed.

In a defence and security industry obsessed by information and technology, improving rations to keep the human being in the middle as effective as possible should be on the menu.

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