Are MREs Responsible For Veteran Digestive Problems and Gut Health?

Are MREs Responsible For Veteran Digestive Problems and Gut Health?


Well, if you ask the United States Military the answer is a definitive “no.” Meanwhile, if you ask veterans who are suffering from a variety of digestive issues they will tell you that the answer is slightly more complicated. Now, the purpose of this writing is not to present the science in a manner that I am ill-equipped to offer. I am a Marine grunt veteran of Iraq and though I have digested many a MRE in my day, I never broke out the lab coat and broke down what I was actually consuming. However, I do think it is important when dealing with the VA to trust your gut. MREs wouldn’t be the first thing that the military had us consume or endure only to find out that it played a role in future health problems. With that in mind, let’s jump right in.


Listen To Your Gut When It Comes To Your Health

It is often said of the gut biome that it in many ways acts like a second brain. Your gut can affect mood, behavior, wellness, and we are just scratching the surface on all that this microbiome controls. The gut can also be described as a natural instinct and thus we get the phrase, “trust your gut.” As it pertains to military service and disability, it works something like this.

My gut told me that breathing in the noxious fumes from burn pits and diesel fused crappers in 2003 Iraq wasn’t good for my health. Yet, we burned them anyway and often sent our youngest PFCs to do the stirring of burning human feces. My gut told me that bearing all of this weight on my back for 15 miles at a time might cause some back and knee problems down the road. Yet, fall out of one hump and you’ll pay the price.

Our guts told us that the mefloquine they gave us in Iraq for malaria and caused some of the trippiest dreams of our lives wasn’t right. So much so that we all quit taking it and said, “screw it, we’ll just get malaria.” Fast forward some 20 years later, we know what burn pits did to us all. I know, via the arthritis in my lower spine, that the weight of military service was heavier than thought. I know that due to the past 20 years of insomnia, that the mefloquine did something. Our guts were right then and we would do well to listen to them today.


What’s The Scientific Truth About MREs?

In a 2016 study, scientists from the U.S. Army Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM) set out to explore the complex world of the gut microbiome as it pertained to health and operational readiness. You see, not only is your gut shaped by diet, it also reacts to stress and for those of us who have been there, combat is full of stress.

It’s also full of disrupted sleep patterns, environmental changes, physical demands and of course the occasional 7.62mm round that doesn’t exactly do your gut any favors, should they ever meet. It’s also an environment where the Meal Ready-to-Eat is the cuisine of the day and often for extended periods of time.

The current policy put out by the Surgeon General allows for the MRE to be consumed as the sole subsistence for up to 21 days. However, it is a well known fact by the grunts that telling Gunny you can’t eat the MRE because it’s the 22nd day and you demand hot chow is known to be far more hazardous to your health. According to the 2016 study, the MRE is reported to have no negative effects on gut health and only a “small” impact on the gut microbiome. Now, let’s talk about that word “small.”


MREs Rob You Of Your Ability to Poop

Once again, this is a “trust your gut” moment. Those of us who have been on MREs for any length know exactly what it does to our ability to poop. Perhaps it is the lack of dietary fibers in the meal or another gut related factor, but constipation and MREs go together like peanut butter and jelly. Sure, you can have one without the other, but not likely.

We know it does something to us that regular food does not. Now, that’s not to say that MREs are unsafe. Rather, simply to say it does something to the gut that we pay for when we finally make it to the crapper. In addition, there are countless service members who have reported anecdotal other gastrointestinal issues while eating MREs in operational environments.

However, the blame is primarily placed on the operational environment and not the MRE. It is said that when the average Marine is consuming MREs for prolonged periods of time, they are often in very stressful environments with wild environmental factors such as extreme heat, cold, or high altitudes. The 2016 USARIEM study seems to point to this factor.


Trusting Your Gut Is Still The Best Advice For Veterans

Studies such as the 2016 USARIEM research are going to make it all the more difficult for veterans to file claims with MREs targeted as the culprit. That’s partially because all service members have eaten them in large quantities for over 30 years and if a claim was possible, we’d all bankrupt the nation.

However, if you are a veteran facing digestion problems, you still need to listen to your gut. Not every veteran who took mefloquine had the same problems. Not every veteran exposed to a burn pit developed health problems. Not every grunt who carried enormous amounts of weight developed arthritis. Much like your rifle, this is your gut. There are many like it, but this one is yours.

The military has also spent the past 20 plus years trying to improve the taste and quality of MREs. That means they have added some items and taken some items away. Thus, not all MRE experiences are the same. Personally, if any MRE caused debilitating damage it would be that damn Omelet MRE as far as I’m concerned and yet, not every service member was so lucky to experience that gem.


Valor 4 Vet Exists To Take a Gut Feeling And Turn It Into The Help You Need

Most of us were not confused about what harm we were doing to our bodies when we served and yet most of us would still do it all over again. I know I would as I can’t fathom a life not informed by my experience as a Marine. Because I joined at 17 years of age and I’m now in my 40’s, I spent more of my life being a United States Marine than I ever lived not a Marine. After all, once a Marine, always a Marine.

That doesn’t mean our guts were not telling us the right thing. If you are having problems with your gut, reach out to your doctor.

Look, the MRE is just one more military artifact in the history of many. I’m sure in Vietnam, the guts of those Marines told them this Agent Orange stuff might be a problem. I’m sure in the Gulf War, the guts of service members walking among the burning oil fields told them something was amiss.

If your gut is telling you that you are having problems and the MRE may be a contributing factor, don’t let others dismiss it outright. Even if it is not the MRE, that inquisition may lead you to the real culprit. The MRE may be the first way point on the path to your objective of simply getting the help you need. That’s what most of us are in search of in the first place. It’s not a rating or a particular dollar amount, it is just the help we need and the help we deserve. 

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