For those who want to be prepared for the uncertain future, food security is high on the priority list. The demand for long shelf-life items is high, so many in the preparedness community have turned to an old military standby: Meals-Ready-to-Eat, also known as “MREs.”
Unfortunately, our military also has different meanings for the term MREs: Meals Refusing to Exit, Meals Resisting Excretion, Meals Requiring Enemas. Getting a general idea of what I’m talking about? Yes, I mean the reputation for the rations being the cause of….constipation.
U.S. soldier ration policy was first implemented a during the Revolutionary War. It often consisted of a day’s supply of beef, peas, and rice. Canned foods with salted and dried meat became popular during the Civil War. Spam achieved its popularity as a result of 100 million cans being sent to our soldiers in the Pacific during WWII. Canned wet rations continued to be used throughout the Vietnam war.
Around the same time, advances in technology allowed the first MREs to be developed under the supervision of Dr. Abdul Rahman. Dr. Rahman received the Meritorious Civilian Service Award for his efforts, although not every GI might agree about the “meritorious” part.
Today’s MREs provide a reasonable amount of convenient calories and are lightweight and compact. You can expect to find items like beef patties or turkey loaf, vegetables, rice, powdered milk, cheese powder, crackers with peanut butter, cereal bars, and dried fruit slices such as apple rings and raisins. Some even contain chewing gum. Every generation is more palatable and convenient than previous versions.
(Note: The contents of one MRE meal bag provides an average of 1250 kilocalories (13 % protein, 36 % fat, and 51 % carbohydrates). This constitutes 1/3 of the Military Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamins and minerals.)
But the topic of today’s post about MREs is constipation. Does eating MREs regularly cause it? This is important to know for the survival medic, as many will have MREs as a primary part of their food storage. If they cause constipation, it will be an issue that the family caregiver will have to handle.
Anecdotal from (large numbers of) servicemen suggest that MREs do, indeed, cause constipation, but is there hard data supporting this claim? In a word, yes. A 2020 study in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry split subjects into two groups. One who ate regular food for three weeks and one who ate nothing but MREs (and water or black coffee) for the same period of time.
The MRE group reported one fewer bowel movement per week than the regular food group. Why did this happen? The reason given was that MREs are worse at promoting the growth of good gut bacteria (like lactobacilli) than fresh foods. Being low in fiber, bowel movements become harder and less regular. It can also cause gas, a possible source of discomfort and decreased productivity in austere settings.
It should be noted that the MRE group’s issues with fewer bowel movements than usual resolved as soon as they went back on normal food. This leads me to suggest:
Don’t feed your survival group MREs exclusively or for long periods of time. Have foodstuffs available that will provide enough fiber to keep things moving. Some alternatives include trail mix, beef jerky, hummus (chickpea paste), prunes, and fermented foods like yogurt.
Keep your people well-hydrated. The more fluids you take in, the more likely you’ll remain regular. Add two to four glasses of water if you’re on a MRE diet.
Don’t just have tourniquets and splints in your medical storage. Things like fiber supplements, stool softeners, and laxatives are useful supplies to have on hand. Even some mineral, castor, or olive oil may be helpful.
Consider putting together a food garden. I often recommend having a medicinal herb garden, but having fresh veggies and fruits can help you stay regular. Be aware there’s a learning curve to vegetable gardening; don’t wait until the zombie apocalypse to start planting.
More general information about constipation can be found in my last article.
By the way, there’s apparently no truth (according to the manufacturer) to the notion that the chewing gum that often comes with MREs is a laxative to counteract the effects of the rest of the meal. Having said that, there is often sorbitol or xylitol as an ingredient, which may have a laxative effect in some.
Another “mistaken” belief is that MREs are intentionally meant to constipate our soldiers so they don’t have to go during missions. One “true” myth is the infamous recipe #4, the vegetable cheese omelet meal, which was so unpalatable that it was known as the “vomelet.” It was discontinued in 2009.
Joe Alton MD
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