Nutrition and its effect on performance, injury rates and long term health

By Brenden Robinson February 9, 2021

We strive to give our trainees the best instructors, a high quality of physical training and the best education and training available. So why are we feeding them food that won’t aid their bodies to perform their best, cope with the physical and mental stresses of training, and assist in recovery? This article presents four areas for consideration; obesity trends in civilian and military personnel, macronutrients, micronutrients and change that can be effected in the ADF.

Obesity trends

Obesity has seen an upwards trend in Australia, in both the civilian and military sector, affecting the health and the readiness of the Army. The rate of people who are obese aged 18-21 has doubled from 7.2% to 15% in the years 1995 to 2014. An increase in the availability and types of calorie dense foods making up a greater portion of people’s diets there is no surprise that waistlines of the nation have expanded. These foods are less satiating leading to increased consumption, which in turn prompts an energy imbalance causing weight gain. When people enter the ADF they bring the habits of their civilian life and as there have been no resolute efforts to change these habits, they continue eating the same food which in turn decreases their health and therefore the capability of the ADF.

Resultantly, the waistlines of people joining the military are negatively affected. The Australian Army BMI cut off was raised from 30 to 32.9 moving from the overweight to the obese category for people who are applying to serve. With this rise in the BMI cut off comes an increase chance of injury during basic training and within units. In the study 'The health and cost implications of high body mass index in Australian Defence Force personnel' it was shown that injury rates were significantly higher between normal BMI and the obese BMI cohort within Defence (Peake et al, 2012). The trend has been similar in America with a significant number of people ineligible for service due to obesity. 

Drawing from nutritional studies done on athletes, and other demographics, we can see the importance of how macronutrients and micronutrients can affect physical/mental performance, long term health and injury rates. Simple changes to the way we educate and feed our soldiers at training establishments in the brigades can have an impact to the health, readiness and combat capability of the ADF.


Food can be broken down into macronutrients being protein, carbohydrates and fats. Proteins are required by the body for tissue growth and recovery including bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, hair, teeth and blood. It is required both constantly and in large quantity, as the human body cannot store it. Consumption of protein after exercise is shown to increase muscular adaption (Maughan et al. 2012) whereas having no protein after training sessions does not optimise tissue adaptions. Carbohydrates are the main fuel source used by the body and brain during intense physical activity and quality sources are found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and quinoa (British Nutrition Foundation, 2018). Sufficient carbohydrates are needed for injury prevention, recovery and performance. If insufficient carbohydrates are consumed, the subsequent training load must be reduced leading to corresponding decreases in training response (Maughan et al, 2012). Fats have a two-fold function; providing a fuel source for low intensity activity, and Omega 3s (a type of unsaturated fat) which have anti-inflammatory properties- which can lessen the effects of exercise induced muscle damage, improve brain function and joint health (Rathod et al, 2016, Jouris et al, 2011). Quality unsaturated fats can be found in fish, avocado, olive oils and nuts.


Vitamins and minerals provide the body with many increased efficiencies in muscle contraction, normal heart rhythm, nerve impulse conduction, oxygen transport, oxidative phosphorylation, enzyme activation, immune functions, antioxidant activity, bone health, and acid-base balance of the blood (Paschalis et al, 2016, Tary et al, 2020, Williams, 2005). A review concluded that B vitamins, vitamin C, iron, magnesium and zinc play essential roles in energy-yielding metabolism, DNA synthesis, oxygen transport and neural functions making them vital for brain and muscular functions (Tardy et al, 2020). These in turn affect mental and physical fatigue levels (Tardy et al 2020, Paschalis et al, 2016, Williams, 2005, Thomas, et al, 2016).

Drawing from Elite Sport

In 2018, after Advanced Operational Conditioning Program (AOCP) was introduced, a guest presenter, Daniel Strickland (former North Queensland Cowboys player and current Townsville Black Hawks strength and conditioning coach), visited 1 RAR and related infantry soldiers to being tactical athletes. Carrying heavy loads long distances, engaging in hand to hand combat, running for extended periods, and having the cognitive ability to make snap combat decisions drew Strickland to that conclusion. The Army has progressed in physical training, incorporating resistance based strength training into PT at both training establishments and units. Progress in advances to nutrition for trainees has the ability to follow suit. Elite level sport athletes have strict nutritional dietary plans to aid in their overall performances. As an entire defence body, the number of individual diet plans would be vast and seem unachievable; however, we can take the nutritional principles of sporting athletes and apply them to enhance soldier's performance, reduce injury rates and increase their long term overall health. Just like with the health benefits of losing weight, where the greatest effects come from the first 5% of weight loss (Faidon et al, 2016), the greatest effect of good nutrition comes from eating minimally processed and nutrient dense foods - and not strict meal time guidelines, supplementation and macros each individual needs.

The Australian Defence Force is world class. The equipment, physical and mental training are forever progressing to new heights and I believe the nutritional standards should be amongst them. While there have been efforts made to improve the nutritional practices of the ADF, by making simple changes to what we feed and teach our soldiers from basic training onwards we can vastly improve the quality of the performance and long term health of men and women that serve our nation. In simple terms; better nutrition makes for a better soldier.

Strategies to improve nutrition in the Army

While at training establishments, either Kapooka or IETs, there is a captive audience of trainees learning basic life skills such as making beds and ironing clothes. This is where attention to detail is drummed in to all facets of life. This courtesy should be carried across and applied to the education of good nutritional health. The beginning of a trainee’s defence career is the ideal opportunity to educate them on the importance of nutrition and provide them with the highest quality food, so they can perform at their best and carry that knowledge throughout their lives. PTIs could provide the information to members on the importance of good nutrition in relation to their physical and cognitive performance, as well as, on how food can prevent injury with sufficient nutrients for the body to recover and remain injury free.

To support soldiers while in barracks, both at training establishments and in their units, measures to replace (nutritionally) low quality foods with those more beneficial for the body and brain can be taken. These measures include; substituting calorie dense foods for fresh fruit and nuts as available snacks, and providing Greek yoghurt and oats, and wholemeal bread in place of high sugar cereals at breakfast. Dinner provision could consist of a wide variety of vegetables and lean meats to replenish the carbohydrates, protein, fats and nutrients needed for complete recovery. Deep fried and fatty food options should be removed as the predominant available food source. This will all aid in helping our soldiers reach their maximum physical and mental capabilities.



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Brenden Robinson


Brenden Robinson is Corporal in the Infantry.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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