MREs: Ultimate Endurance Fuel?

 

MREbox

For those unfamiliar with the term, MREs, or Meals Ready To Eat, are the prepackaged field rations the Army provides to its soldiers.  The meals often contain in excess of 1,200 calories per package and can conveniently fit inside your backpack.  Occasionally, I see people heading to events like World’s Toughest Mudder talking about how their plan is to consume MREs during their event.  They use logic along the lines of – if it is good enough to sustain soldiers in combat than it is good enough to for my ultra-race.  Sounds pretty logical right?

mre-20-2009-spaghetti-02

Well…there are a couple of problems with this.  MREs have a lot of other requirements not required for regular endurance products.  The first is the ability to be shelf stable for 10 years.  Anything that can sit on a shelf for 10 years and still be consumed immediately makes me wary.   Second, MREs taste like crap (in my opinion).  Maybe because I have been forced to eat them for weeks on end, but I generally do not recommend their taste.  In fact, I have given them to friends/family as a joke to show the kind of garbage I have to eat while in school house training.  Third, typically most MREs I have seen sold cost around $10 per package.  While this is a bargain for the number of calories you are getting, it is not a bargain for the quality or type of food you are getting.

Fourth, and probably most important, their nutritional profile is terrible.  If you want a meal by meal breakdown, check out this site.  Here are some generalities based on hastily calculated averages:

  • Many have around 3g of Trans Fat, which is more Trans Fat than you should probably ever consume.  The recommended Trans Fat intake is 0g because it is manmade and your body has trouble breaking it down.
  • The saturated fat per meal is around 25g, which is closer to several days’ worth of saturated fat for healthy eaters.
  • They do have a decent number of carbohydrates with close to 190g, which is great for endurance exercise but a lot of that is sugar, something that many endurance companies do not use large quantities of in their products.
  • They do have a lot of protein, around 40g, which will help prevent you from catabolizing your muscles during exercise, which is something I think most endurance athletes do not consume enough of during events.  However, I would argue that the meal is going to fill you up too fast as opposed to densely packed nutrients that allow for that constant stream of fuel similar to what endurance companies provide in their gel or powdered mix products.

Instead of eating a lot of small portions of food providing stable blood sugar and constant energy, MREs will fill you up quickly causing periods of high energy followed by a crash.

MRE unboxed

Finally, if you have any other doubt, always look to those with larger budgets and are very serious about winning.  For this example, that involves looking at the ultra-running community and Special Operation Forces.  Looking at the experts in something usually provides you with the right answer because they have extensively studied the problem.  Although I am sure some do, I still have yet to see an ultra-runner slamming down MREs while racing.  Furthermore, none of the ones I follow on social media ever post pictures or comment about the benefits of MREs.  To add further support, when SOF units are given the choice between buying MREs or REI bought dehydrated camping food, they almost always go with the latter.  When given a choice between free MREs or store bought camping food, most still go with the latter.  SOF typically has a larger budget and more freedom and they typically only use MREs for candidates going through entrance training and not for unit run training events.

MRE

MREs are great for what they were designed for, which is providing a low cost, shelf-stable solution for feeding soldiers for an extended period of time by providing them with loads of calories to handle the physical and mental stress of combat.  Despite what you may think, the Army often goes with the lowest cost product that is also acceptable.  This does not mean they are choosing “the best” item, but simply the cheapest acceptable item.  If you are looking to go shopping once for the next decade and have fuel for all your ultra-distance OCRs, then by all means buy MREs.  If you are looking to perform at your best while ingesting healthy food that supports you reaching your maximum potential, I would stay away from MREs.  If they are not good enough for SOF or serious ultra-athletes, they are probably not good enough for your racing goals.

Operator OCR

Operator OCR is an active duty member of the US Military’s Special Operation Forces.Due to mission requirements, he prefers to remain unidentified by true name.A combat veteran with numerous years spent operating in a combat zones, he enjoys racing OCRs in his free time.You may recognize him by face or name, since he is often, but not always, on the podium of races.

“If you are going to win any battle, you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do… the body is never tired if the mind is not tired.”

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