Imagine you’re 7,000 miles from home, in the middle of Iraq, fighting for your life. Some of your buddies have died. You’re away from base on a mission, and you need to eat—but you need to eat fast, and you can’t give your location away. That’s what Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) are for.
MREs are what our soldiers eat when they’re in the field. They have a shelf life of five years, and they’re packed with calories, because their primary purpose is to keep soldiers alive.Image Credit: Bert Atkinson
Ninety-nine percent of Americans will never experience the challenges of combat. But, as we learned earlier this year when the U.S. Army invited civilians to eat MREs as part of a study, we can experience what they eat.
Back in January, the U.S. Army Institute of Environmental Medicine announced it was conducting a 21-day study on the impact of MREs (“the main operational food ration for the United States Armed Forces”) on gut health.
On the Army’s website one of the project’s research dietitians, Holly McClung, described the study’s aim:
“Interactions between the millions of bacteria living in our gut and what we eat is a very important factor in gut health, but we don’t know how MRE foods interact with those bacteria to impact gut health. Ultimately, discovering how eating MREs influences gut bacteria and gut health will help our efforts to continually improve the MRE.”
Here at Independent Journal Review, we decided we liked that premise and wanted to document it on video in the form of a 21-day challenge. We figured that if we wanted to get a taste of what our soldiers experience, it was the least we could do.
I was the lucky volunteer.
Here were the rules of the challenge (which differed slightly from the Army’s more rigid and scientific study):
- The challenge would be undertaken by a total civilian who’d never eaten an MRE before (That’d be me.)
- I’d eat nothing but MREs for 21-days straight.
- I’d only eat two meals per day.
Here’s what was inside one of the typical MREs I consumed:
My friend Duane Bean, an armed forces veteran, had this to say about the challenge:
“If somebody wants to voluntarily eat MREs, I’m all for it because at the end of the day there’s no way somebody that’s in the civilian world can full understand and get the full effect of MREs. And I think it’s absolutely outstanding that somebody would want to risk their bowel movements to eat MREs.”
Here’s how I was feeling each step of the way:
I was both confident I’d be able to complete the challenge and excited to get started. It felt like being back in elementary school again — while they certainly weren’t delicious, the pasta-based meals tasted a lot like Chef Boyardee, and the whole made-to-assemble feel of the MRE gave it a Lunchables vibe.
At this point, I honestly didn’t think the challenge would be that hard. Little did I know…
By the end of the first week, things started getting rough. Going into the second week I felt bloated all the time. My energy levels were way down. I would alternate between vicious cycles of spending hours in the bathroom and then not being able to go at all.
It was awful not just physically, but mentally as well. It felt like I had been eating the same artificial-tasting meals for an eternity. I dreaded getting hungry because I knew that meant I’d soon have to be eating another MRE.
What I wouldn’t have done for a fresh piece of lettuce…
At this point, I was turning the corner. The challenge was coming to an end, and I saw a light at the end of the MRE tunnel. The same fatigue and general feeling of being bloated beyond belief stayed with me, but it became bearable because I knew this godforsaken challenge would soon be over.
On day 21, when I bit into that sweet, sweet Chick-fil-A sandwich, it was pure ecstasy.
So having gone through this challenge — eating nothing but MREs for 21 days — do I now know what it’s like to be a soldier?
Of course not.
I haven’t gone through the fear of losing my life in battle, the pain of being away from my family for months at a time, or experienced the complete loss of the conveniences and comforts I’m used to.
What have I learned, then?
I’m more grateful than ever for those who make sacrifices of any kind to protect our freedoms.