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Soldiers in Iraq pack on pounds

Available fare and stress lead to overeating

BAGHDAD -- When Specialist Matthew Curll left basic training for Iraq nearly a year ago, he traded a bland diet of MREs for burgers, pie, and Fudgsicles.

"You go from a lot of MREs and crappy stuff at the mess hall to prime rib on Sundays," said Curll, 21, of Lancaster, Mass., over a dinner of baked chicken followed by ice cream in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone.

"I wasn't expecting it at all," added Specialist Joe Reen, 23, of Norwood, Mass., finishing a turkey wrap and green salad. "You wanted to try everything."

The two indulged at first, but said they learned to resist most of the fried food and extra desserts that dominate the menu at US dining facilities in Iraq. Others are not so careful, they said, including a few officers ahead of them in the chow line.

"There were three colonels in front of me who got double scoops and extra toppings," Reen said.

The Army has loaded the menu at the 70 chow halls, run by contractor KBR, with a buffet of fattening fare, from cheesesteaks to tacos and ice cream. Many soldiers gain more than 15 pounds on a deployment, military dietitians say. They are also seeing soldiers return from Iraq with higher cholesterol, mostly due to their eating habits.

Soldiers are just as susceptible to overeating and packing on the pounds as anyone else, said Donald Williamson, a professor of nutrition at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

"Iraq presents some added challenges people don't face here -- sitting around a lot, then going from boring to distressing in a matter of minutes," he said.

In Iraq, it's up to a handful of military dietitians to steer the troops away from that second piece of pie a la mode and to the salad bars. Most recognize the hold that food has in a place where a taste of home brings comfort.

"There are three things that are absolutely crucial for morale: mail, food, and showers," said First Lieutenant Susan Stankorb, a licensed dietitian with the 28th Combat Support Hospital, a mobile unit based at Baghdad's Ibn Sina Hospital. "You have to have your chicken nuggets and your ice cream now and again. For the soldiers, that helps."

But how many calories does the average soldier need?

Most MREs, or meals ready to eat, contain about 1,300 calories; three a day are recommended. Supplemented with energy bars and drinks, they give soldiers the 4,500 to 5,000 calories they need for an active day of patrols or on the front line.

But many of the 400,000 meals served daily at chow halls in Iraq are consumed by soldiers who spend most of their time on base or at desk jobs.

And dietary misconceptions abound. Some soldiers load up on high-calorie meat to avoid perceived protein deficiencies. They guzzle sugary sodas, energy drinks, and fruit juice to avoid dehydration when they're better off with water.

Many times soldiers don't realize how poorly they're eating, Stankorb said. So she photographed some of their white plastic dinner plates of food and posted the pictures outside her office with cautionary calorie breakdowns under the headline: "The average soldier gains 10 pounds while deployed. Don't let that happen to you!"

A sample meal of fried chicken, two cheese sandwiches, chili, cheesecake, Gatorade, and orange soda racked up 2,395 calories. A more conservative meal of fried chicken, brown rice, peas, and diet soda was 716 calories, but still above the 500-calorie plate Stankorb recommends for those trying to lose or maintain their weight.

Soldiers also snack between meals, on care packages full of cookies, candy from the post exchange, or fries, pizza, and Frappuccinos ("liquid sugar" to military dietitians) from fast food purveyors. There are 73 such outlets on US bases in Iraq, according to the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, which operates them. They include Burger King, Pizza Hut, and KFC.

"For some of them, it's their third or fourth deployment, and there's only so many menu options you can offer," Stankorb said. "They're burnt out on the dining facilities and so they go for the Burger King or the Easy Mac their wife sends."

Soldiers have their weight checked against a chart every six months.

If they're too heavy, a commander uses a tape measure around the waist, hips, and other areas to gauge their body fat. If soldiers fail this "tape test" they won't be promoted or receive awards until they lose the weight.

A Pentagon study released in January found the number of overweight service members had increased 20 percent in the last decade. Almost one-third of 18-year-olds who applied for military service in 2005 were overweight, according to a recent Army report.

Dietitians here say their main concern is that soldiers be fit to fight and don't become a burden on their unit in the field.

So dietitians created a Weight Watchers-style program called "Operation Weight Loss," posted cards in the chow halls that show the calories, fat, and sodium for different foods and mounted "Biggest Loser" weight loss competitions.

Navy MC1 Emmitt Hawks of Jacksonville, N.C., has dropped 65 pounds since October, down to 180 pounds, by eating healthier foods.

But Hawks, 35, said eating healthily can be tough for soldiers in the field facing danger and fewer meal options.

He said he couldn't blame a friend who holed up with junk food after seeing the trailer next to his hit by a mortar shell, killing the soldier inside.

"I've heard people say, 'Today could be my last day,' and they'll eat," Hawks said. "But I want to be where I can run as fast as I can to that bunker when I hear a duck-and-cover order."