Nutritional Armor: US Army explores boosting omega-3 levels with food and supplements

By Stephen Daniells contact

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/Maksym Dragunov
© iStock/Maksym Dragunov
Replacing omega-6 foods and ingredients on US military garrison menus with products with increased omega-3 contents may boost the omega-3 profile of soldiers, says a new study exploring the practicality of such an approach.

Substituting foods such as chicken, egg, and oils with products with less omega-6 and more omega-3 on a US Military's Standard Garrison Dining Facility Menu led to increases in blood levels of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) or DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and increased the Omega-3 Index over 10 weeks.

The study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition​, is reported to be the first to examine the practicality of boosting omega-3 levels in collective group feeding settings such as cafeterias and military garrison dining facilities.

“[W]e have demonstrated that swapping high LA [linoleic acid] containing foods and food ingredients typically used in the US Military’s standard, 28-day Garrison Dining Facility Menu, and replacing them with similar high oleic acid/low LA and high n-3 fatty acid foods substantially improved n-6/n-3 blood fatty acid status of people consuming these foods in a relatively short period of time,” ​wrote the authors, led by Dr Andrew Young​ from the Military Nutrition Division at the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.

“The specialty meat and eggs used in the experimental diets can be produced at a commercial scale, with only a modest increase in retail cost. The shelf life of these specialty foods is equal to current products. The specialty condiments, high oleic oils and n-3 fortified smoothie used in this study are already commercially available.

“The modest dietary adjustments are well accepted by diners, and are feasible for implementation in group feeding settings such as military dining facilities and other types of cafeterias, with little added cost.”

“Nutritional Armor”

Military interest in omega-3 is nothing new, with the November 2014 edition of Military Medicine​ focusing on the fatty acids as “nutritional armor”.

Interest has focused on several different endpoints, including improving mood and reducing suicide rates among serving and ex-military personnel, speeding recovery from traumatic brain injury, and improving reaction times of fighter pilots.

A recent study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders​, for example, found that omega-3s may benefit people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is known to produce psychophysiological symptoms such as a pounding heart.

An expert panel convened at the Nutritional Armor for the Warfighter Conference, jointly hosted by the Samueli Institute through the Metabolic Defense Program and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, concluded: “[B]ased on studies analyzing omega-3 and omega-6 FA balance, it would be unethical to not attempt elevating the omega-3 status among U.S. military personnel.”

Study details

The study was performed by researchers from the Military Nutrition Division at the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, the Medical University of South Carolina, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Belovo Inc., the Samueli Institute, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at the National Institutes of Health.

Dr Young and his co-workers recruited 78 men and women to participate in their placebo-controlled, double-blinded study. The volunteers were randomly assigned to one of three groups: A control group, which consumed the standard garrison menu; a moderate experimental groups, which consumed the same menus but had select foods swapped for products with les s omega-6 and more omega-3; or a high experimental group, which was the same as the moderate group but with the addition of an omega-3-rich smoothie containing 1,000 mg of omega-3s per serving (NutriFriend by Smartfish AS).

After 10 weeks, EPA and DHA levels in plasma and red blood cells in the control diet subjects had not changed, but levels in both omega-3 groups increased and were higher after only five weeks.

The Omega-3 Index, a measure of EPA and DHA in the membranes of red blood cells, increased further after 10 weeks for the group that received the additional Smartfish product.

On the other hand, no significant changes were observed for levels of triglycerides, total cholesterol, LDL, or HDL. No significant impact on mood or emotional reactivity was reported.

“Overall, our findings indicate that this dietary intervention improved plasma and tissue n-6 and n-3 HUFA profiles in healthy, young adults,” ​wrote the researchers.

Ongoing research: Resilience to stress

Study co-authors Dr Joe Hibbeln and Dr Bernadette Marriot are currently involved in a clinical trial​ (the Ranger Resilience and Improved Performance on phospholipid bound Omega-3s (RRIPP-3) study) examining the efficacy of krill oil supplementation on specific cognitive processes that underlie key elements of soldier performance that may have a measurable impact on performance and mental health under the extreme psychophysiological stress of military officer training.

The RRIPP-3 study seeks to answer three questions:

1. Will treatment with krill oil concentrate containing the omega-3 HUFAs improve cognitive and psychiatric functioning during U.S. Army Infantry Basic Officer Leadership Course (Part I)?

2. Will treatment with krill oil concentrate containing the omega-3 HUFAs improve the performance of officers during portions of the U.S. Army Infantry Basic Officer Leadership Course (Part I) and Ranger training (Part II)?

3. Do effects of the supplements continue once a person stops taking them? Are there any group differences in functioning observed 2 months after treatment is discontinued (i.e., after Ranger training)?

Source: British Journal of Nutrition
2017, Volume 23, Pages 1-13. doi: 10.1017/S0007114517001003
“Blood fatty acid changes in healthy young Americans in response to a 10-week diet that increased n-3 and reduced n-6 fatty acid consumption: a randomised controlled trial”
Authors: A.J. Young, B.P. Marriott, C.M. Champagne, M.R. Hawes, S.J. Montain, N.M. Johannsen, K. Berry, J.R. Hibbeln 

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