When Spc. Matthew Curll left basic training for Iraq nearly a year ago, he traded a bland diet of MREs for burgers, pie and Fudgsicles.
“You go from a lot of MREs and crappy stuff at the mess hall to prime rib on Sundays,” said Curll, 21, of Lancaster, Mass., over a dinner of baked chicken followed by ice cream in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.
“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” added Spc. Joe Reen, 23, of Norwood, Mass., finishing a turkey wrap and green salad. “You wanted to try everything.”
The two indulged at first, but said they learned to resist most of the fried food and extra desserts that dominate the menu at U.S. dining facilities in Iraq. Others are not so careful, they said, including a few officers ahead of them in the chow line.
“There were three colonels in front of me who got double scoops and extra toppings,” Reen said.
The Army has loaded the menu at the 70 chow halls, run by contractor KBR, with a buffet of fattening fare, from cheese steaks to tacos and Rocky Road ice cream. Many soldiers gain more than 15 pounds on a deployment, military dietitians say. They are also seeing soldiers return from Iraq with higher cholesterol, mostly due to their eating habits.
Lt. Col. Maggie Brandt, a surgeon at the 28th Combat Support Hospital who had just come from a swim, said she was dieting but couldn’t resist the pistachio ice cream.
“I’m on a ‘see food’ diet. If I see food, I eat it,” joked Brandt, 44, of Ypsilanti, Mich.
Soldiers are just as susceptible to overeating and packing on the pounds as anyone else, said Donald Williamson, a professor of nutrition at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
“Iraq presents some added challenges people don’t face here -- sitting around a lot, then going from boring to distressing in a matter of minutes,” he said.
In Iraq, it’s up to a handful of military dietitians to steer the troops away from that second piece of pie a la mode and to the salad bars. Most recognize the hold food has in a place where a taste of home brings comfort.
“There are three things that are absolutely crucial for morale: mail, food and showers,” said 1st Lt. Susan Stankorb, a licensed dietitian with the 28th Combat Support Hospital, a mobile unit that is currently based at Baghdad’s Ibn Sina Hospital. “You have to have your chicken nuggets and your ice cream now and again. For the soldiers, that helps.”
Counting the calories
But how many calories does the average soldier need?
Most MREs, or meals ready to eat, contain about 1,300 calories; three a day are recommended. Supplemented with energy bars and drinks, they give soldiers the 4,500 to 5,000 calories they need for an active day of patrols or on the front line.
But many of the 400,000 meals served daily at chow halls in Iraq are consumed by soldiers who spend most of their time on base or at desk jobs.
And dietary misconceptions abound. Some soldiers load up on high-calorie meat to avoid perceived protein deficiencies. They guzzle sugary sodas, energy drinks and fruit juice to avoid dehydration when they’re better off with water.
Many times soldiers don’t even realize how poorly they’re eating, Stankorb said. So she photographed some of their white plastic dinner plates of food and posted the pictures outside her office with cautionary calorie breakdowns under the headline: “The average soldier gains 10 pounds while deployed. Don’t let that happen to you!”
A sample meal of fried chicken, two cheese sandwiches, chili, cheesecake, Gatorade and orange soda racked up 2,395 calories. A more conservative meal of fried chicken, brown rice, peas and diet soda was only 716 calories, but still above the 500-calorie plate Stankorb recommends for those trying to lose or maintain their weight.
Of course, soldiers also snack between meals, on care packages full of cookies, candy from the post exchange, or fries, pizza and Frappuccinos (“liquid sugar” to military dietitians) from fast food purveyors. There are 73 such outlets on U.S. bases in Iraq, according to the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, which operates them. They include Burger King, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“For some of them, it’s their third or fourth deployment, and there’s only so many menu options you can offer,” Stankorb said. “They’re burnt out on the dining facilities and so they go for the Burger King or the Easy Mac their wife sends.”
Stankorb, who is petite and slender, also has boxes of Girl Scout cookies and macaroni and cheese in her office. And she had just ordered nacho fixings online: chips, salsa and Velveeta cheese.
“I get a little frustrated,” she said. “This is the third time this week I’ve had baked chicken.”
Soldiers have their weight checked against a chart every six months. If they’re too heavy, a commander uses a tape measure around the waist, hips and other areas to gauge their body fat. If soldiers fail this “tape test” they won’t be promoted or receive awards until they lose the weight.
A Pentagon study released in January found the number of overweight service members had increased 20% in the last decade. Almost one-third of 18-year-olds who applied for military service in 2005 were overweight, according to a recent Army report.
Dietitians here say their main concern is that soldiers be fit to fight and don’t become a burden on their unit in the field.
“Our soldiers are like world-class athletes. They should train properly and they should eat properly because that can have a direct impact on the success of their missions,” said Lt. Col. John Ruibal, who saw soldiers eat cheesecake for dinner when he served as dietitian with 30th Medical Brigade in Baghdad last year. “If they don’t eat properly or drink properly the mission may suffer; one of their soldiers may be at risk.”
But with so many extended deployments to boost the U.S. military buildup, dietitians realize it may be too much to ask soldiers already under stress and far from home to diet.
“Sometimes, I’m not sure it’s appropriate to enforce the weight standards for soldiers in theater who are facing a lot of stress,” Stankorb said. “At the same time, when you pick someone up who’s 270 pounds on a litter, it’s a challenge. And it does create some health risks.”
So dietitians created a Weight Watchers-style program called “Operation Weight Loss,” posted cards in the chow halls that show the calories, fat and sodium for different foods and even mounted “Biggest Loser” weight loss competitions.
Brandt, the Michigan reservist, joined one weight loss competition six weeks ago. So far, she’s lost 8 pounds, and hopes to lose 45.
Navy Spc. Emmitt Hawks of Jacksonville, N.C., has dropped 65 pounds since October, down to 180 pounds, by eating healthier foods such as fresh panini at the U.S. Embassy.
But Hawks, 35, said eating healthily can be tough for soldiers in the field facing greater danger and fewer meal options. He said he couldn’t blame a friend of his who holed up with some junk food after seeing the trailer next to his hit by a mortar shell, killing the soldier inside.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Today could be my last day,’ and they’ll eat,” Hawks said. “But I want to be where I can run as fast as I can to that bunker when I hear a duck-and-cover order.”