MREs Make It Tougher for Soldiers to Go No. 2, Army Study Says, Backing Up Widely Held Belief

Soldiers and Marines have long relied on Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MREs) while in the field. But as they depended upon MREs to provide nourishment, their digestive systems likely took a hit.

An Army study shows that MREs reduce the number of frequent bowel movements. In other words, as soldiers look out for No. 1 while on duty, they find it harder to go No. 2.

The report published in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry states that a group of 60 people—a combination of military and civilians—participated in the study over a 21-day period. Part of the group chowed down on MREs two to three times a day, while the remaining participants continued their normal diets.

The volunteers then provided their gastrointestinal data to the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. This included daily food logs, and researchers also collected samples of blood, urine and feces. Researchers analyzed the data from 2015-2017 and found that those who feasted on their regular diets had an average of one more bowel movement per week than those who were committed to eating MREs.

Researchers said MREs lack the good bacteria found in fresh fruits and vegetables that help push toxins from the body.

Servicemembers who have been in the field, whether in combat or extensive training, mostly relied on MREs as their daily nutrition. Those who feasted on MREs typically created their own form of the acronym, calling them "Meals, Refusing to Exit," per the Army Times on Wednesday.

Army MREs
U.S. Military Police Lance Corporals Tony Lantrip (L), from Clarksville, Indiana, and Scott Roberson of Hamilton, Ohio eat Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) at a government highway checkpoint March 19, 2003 in the desert of Kuwait. Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

MREs are typically packaged in a brown bag, and they are designed to withstand the elements someone in the field could face. Each brown bag contains "an entrée, a starch, a spread (cheese, peanut butter, jam/jelly), a dessert and/or snack, a beverage powder, instant coffee or tea and chewing gum," according to the study. Each MRE packs roughly 1,300 calories and 12 grams of grams of fiber.

Volunteers in the study who had MREs were given different meal types based on their physique so they wouldn't see sharp weight fluctuation. The volunteers who did not have MREs was asked to maintain a diet similar in caloric intake, and both groups were asked to keep a similar physical activity routine.

Dr. J. Philip Karl, author of the study, said MREs get "a bad rap" because a number of factors can cause less-often bowel movements.

"The MRE actually provides more fiber and more of several vitamins and minerals compared to people's typical diets. ... I think MREs get a bad rap," Karl wrote.

Karl said most Americans stray from eating fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet.

"Americans tend not to eat enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains," Karl told Stars and Stripes. "It's not MREs underlying a lot of anecdotal reports of gastrointestinal discomfort."

Karl added that gastrointestinal discomfort, or being slightly irregular, can be caused by high stress, dehydration, hygiene, and harsh environmental surroundings servicemembers could face.

The study also reported that those on the MRE plan regained normal regularity once they went back to their previous diets.