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Dietary Supplements May Build Better Warriors

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 2, 1999 – Science fiction stories often feature "super soldiers" designed to fight in interplanetary wars. These super warriors can survive in all climates and atmospheres. They can go farther, take more pain, have better eyesight and are stronger than ordinary people.

No one in DoD is designing a super soldier, but many are working to give all U.S. service members an edge over any potential adversary. One way to do that is by supplementing their diets.

This is not new, said Harris R. Lieberman, deputy chief of military nutrition and biochemistry at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass. The institute does research for all service branches.

"The military has always looked at ways to improve service members' nutrition," he said. MRE rations deliver about 4,000 calories a day if the service member eats everything on the menus. For one reason or another, however, that often doesn't happen.

"Service members need the calories," Lieberman said. It's no secret carbohydrates provide energy and increase a person's endurance. "But what we've found is, soldiers in combat and other high stress situations just don't eat enough. The problem has always been how to get a supplement to [service members] when they need it." Taste and convenience count.

So Natick researchers at the institute and Army Soldier Systems Center developed the HooAH bar and ERGO drink, Lieberman said. The two are food supplements that will be available this year at many Army bases and could be added to future MRE ration packs.

ERGO, for "Energy Rich Glucose Optimized," is a powdered drink that comes in orange, lemon, lemon-lime, raspberry and tropical punch flavors. Mixed with 12 ounces of water, a serving delivers 170 calories.

HooAH bars weigh 2.3 ounces each and come in cranberry- raspberry, raspberry, chocolate, peanut butter and apple- cinnamon flavors. Depending on the flavor, a bar provides 250 to 290 calories.

Lieberman said the institute proved ERGO enhances a soldier's physical performance. "We did a study with the 75th Rangers at Fort Lewis [Wash.]. We set up a simulated mission," he said. "The Rangers did a road march with full rucksacks and after that a three-mile run."

After the run, the Rangers rested for a few hours and then did another three-mile run. The run time for a group drinking ERGO was 21 minutes 4 seconds. A control group drinking a placebo finished in 22 minutes 15 seconds. "So on average, those with the drink beat the other group by more than a minute," he said.

Rangers also helped the institute test the HooAH bar. Results of the test in Savannah, Ga., aren't back yet, Lieberman said. The HooAH bar is a bit like commercial "power" and "energy" bars, he said, but the researchers are confident their formula for service members provides a better mix of carbohydrates and other nutrients.

The institute is also studying caffeine supplements. "We're finding it might sharpen mental abilities, but researchers are still examining the data," Lieberman said.

Researchers may develop a caffeine supplement, but if they do, it would be clearly labeled -- as all supplements are. It would not just be added to an current product. "We don't want people who can't sleep because they ate caffeinated rations," he said.

The institute also looked at creatine, an amino acid found naturally in the body and in meat. Many body builders use creatine supplements, he said, and institute testing has found they can significantly increase muscular performance. Little is known about creatine's long-term effects, however.

"I think this needs to be studied further," Lieberman said.

Many people in the United States are supplementing their diets with over-the-counter pills, potions and miracle herbs of the moment. The institute is not examining them, Lieberman said, because researchers are "conservative" about what they introduce into military members' diets. A supplement may be popular and commercially available, but that doesn't make it safe or effective, he noted.

Even though Americans can buy many supplements over the counter, researchers encourage service members to avoid some. Those they believe that need more research include:

  • Androstenedione -- This gained notoriety last year when St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire said he used it. Androstenedione is related to testosterone and alleged by proponents to help build muscle bulk and strength. A recent small, controlled test reported June 2 in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed no such effects -- though researchers noted some of the male subjects experienced increased female hormone levels in the blood and decreased "good" cholesterol levels. Long-term effects: uncertain.
  • Ginseng -- The ginseng root has been a versatile herb in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Asians call it the "panacea" or "elixir of life." Proponents claim it increases resistance to disease; stimulates and improves the work of brain cells; prevents headaches, fatigue and exhaustion; and stimulates circulation and the functions of the endocrine glands. Verdict: Jury's out.
  • Gingko biloba -- This herbal product is alleged to improve mental facility and recall and to have beneficial effects on the circulatory system, particularly among the elderly. Studies have shown it can help in treatment of their short-term memory loss, headache, ringing in the ears and depression by improving blood flow in the arteries and capillaries. Verdict: Jury's out.
  • Ephedrine -- Prescribed to relieve symptoms of bronchial asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and other lung diseases, ephedrine is related to amphetamines and sometimes used in diet pills. Both long-term use and overdosage can be toxic, however, and some medical studies have implicated ephedrine and its derivatives in cases of brain hemorrhages and strokes. Ephedrine can be dangerous, and its use is banned or restricted by at least 20 states.
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMix the powder in the pouch in 12 ounces of water and you get ERGO, a sweetened, high-energy drink that comes in five fruit-flavors.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe compact HooAH bar comes in five flavors and packs up to 290 calories for quick energy.  
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