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Feeding the Force: A Tactical Dietitian’s Guide to Optimal Health, Performance & Nutrition

EPISODE 8:  Feeding the Force: A Tactical Dietitian’s Guide to Optimal Health, Performance and Nutrition

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In this episode, Martin and Jonpaul talk to tactical dietician Dr Will Conkright about the role of a dietitian in the military & the challenges he faces. We dive into the basics of optimal nutrition and examine how people working in high stress, high stakes environments can leverage good nutritional habits to positively influence physical and cognitive performance, rest, recovery and sleep.

Guest, Cast & Crew

Dr Will Conkright is a registered dietitian and researcher with over 16 years of experience in clinical, academic and research settings. He primarily works with high-reliability populations, focusing on military operational stress, training and recovery. 

Hosted by Martin Jones & Jonpaul Nevin https://www.ophp.co.uk 

Edited by Bess Manley

Produced by WavellRoom https://wavellroom.com/audio/ 


If you’re enjoying this content, please like and subscribe so we can keep improving. And remember to visit WavellRoom.com for their latest articles, podcasts and newsletters. 


00:42 Introducing Dr. Will Conkright

01:35 Will’s Background and Military Experience

04:35 The Role of a Dietitian in the Military

12:31 Fundamentals of Good Nutrition

21:17 Challenges and Strategies in High-Stress Environments

26:49 Holistic Health and Fitness in the U.S. Army

30:06 Nutrition’s Impact on Cognitive Performance and Sleep

33:38 Supplements for Performance and Recovery

40:15 Precision Performance Nutrition

43:58 Future Trends in Nutrition

Up Next

Next week, we’ll be joined by The Green Room, to talk about mental fitness and how wellbeing coaching, leadership and organizational development can help maintain and improve it.  


Hello and welcome to the Optimizing Human Performance podcast. I’m Martin Jones, a Human Performance Specialist, Researcher and Educator. And I’m John Paul Nevin, a former Royal Armoury Physical Training Corps Instructor turned academic. Each week we talk to world leading experts about how to unlock the full potential of those who operate in high stress, high stakes environments.

We discuss the latest science, innovative strategies, practical wisdom and inspirational stories in the rapidly evolving world of human performance optimisation. The Optimising Human Performance podcast is produced in partnership with the Wavell Room and the Tactical Athlete Performance Centre at Buckinghamshire New University.

Today we welcome Dr Will Conkright to the podcast. Will is a registered dietitian and researcher with over 16 years of experience in clinical, academic and research settings. He primarily works with high reliability populations, focusing on military operational stress, training and recovery. We talked to Will about the role of a dietitian in the military and his challenges.

We also dive into the basics of optimal nutrition and examine how people working in high stress, high stakes environments can leverage good nutritional habits to positively influence physical and cognitive performance, rest, recovery and sleep.

[00:01:18] Martin: Hi, will, welcome to the Optimizing Human Perform Podcast. It’s great to have you here today. How you getting on?

[00:01:24] Will: Great. Thanks for having me.

[00:01:26] Martin: Awesome. We like to start the podcast by handing over to you to introduce yourself. Who are you, where are you, what do you do?

and how did you get to where you are now?

[00:01:35] Will: Okay. so in case you can’t tell my accent, I’m from the United States, not from your all side of the pond, grew up in Kentucky, playing sports, was always outdoors exploring. In 2004, I enlisted in the military and came in as a combat medic and finished my schooling in 2008, commissioned as an officer and, went through the Army Baylor graduate program in, uh, nutrition. And so, my combination interest in health performance, sports, and cooking kind of took me down that road and joined the Army, served in a variety of roles from food service to outpatient health promotion. And, more recently, within the last several years have served alongside the Army Special Operations Command. And in doing so, I’ve kind of, Taking more of an interest in some of the performance aspects and, was able to deploy with them and serve some time in various regions overseas, mostly doing kind of battlefield circulation and kind of assessing, how we’re feeding war fighters and deployment and what are some of the barriers to that and how we can improve, war fighter feeding during deployment. after, serving with them, I finished a doctoral degree at the Neuromuscular Research Lab at University of Pittsburgh, where I studied under Dr. Brad Nindal.. And, now my focus in my role is research and academia and how that supports the war fighter. So I’m sure we’ll get into some of that, but that’s kind of a brief background, 

[00:03:06] Martin: great stuff. Thank you very much. And just, a point there that these are your opinions and not those of your employer. I think that’s an important thing for us to just mention there.

[00:03:14] Will: Yes, thank you so much for reminding me of that, because although I’m an army dietician, these are certainly my,my opinions only, and I’m just speaking on behalf of Will Conkright. 

[00:03:24] Martin: Great stuff. 

[00:03:24] JP: So, well, a dietitian, I suppose an important question, considering it’s probably 6 o’clock in the morning, I think, where you are in the States. What did you as a dietitian have for your breakfast this morning?

[00:03:34] Will: Well, I haven’t had much yet, so mostly coffee at this point. But typically what I would have, probably in about an hour or so, Usually some scrambled eggs with some, spinach, maybe a little bit of chicken sausage. And then, we’ve been into making some, different varieties of, muffins lately.

So pumpkin muffins have been kind of on, on the list. Some, homemade, pecan butter that goes on top of that. So it’s a nice little round of breakfast. 

[00:03:59] JP: I’ve got to be honest, every time I’ve been over at the States, you guys can do breakfast and then some. It’s a whole different league from what we get over here in the UK. I think in Scotland you 

get porridge with salt and that’s about it.

[00:04:08] Will: I was going to say the opposite. we did some traveling

over in the UK last year, and, I think actually you guys are winning on the breakfast front. I’m a big fan of the, uh, style of bacon that you all have and the beans for breakfast.

[00:04:21] Martin: We call that the full English breakfast, isn’t that right, JP?

[00:04:25] JP: No. Full Scottish, mate. Black pudding, tatty scones, boom, done. So, well, I’m curious, in the UK we refer to nutritionists, but in America it’s dieticians. What’s the differential between the two? 

[00:04:40] Will: It’s a good question. And quite frankly, I think it gets confused so often that some of the agencies that make those decisions just kind of gave up on it several years ago. So a registered dietitian is someone who has completed all of the requirements and has been,licensed and credentialed as a dietician.

So that pathway is in the states, a minimum of a bachelor’s degree that’s actually changing. they keep moving the goalposts there, but I think in 2024 now is the target where the minimum degree is gonna be a master’s degree. So you meet those degree requirements, you fulfill an internship. Which can range anywhere from typically 6 to 12 months.

And that’s where you’re going around doing some of your clinical rotations and putting basically the classroom work into practice. And then once you’ve done that, you sit for a board exam and you, become a qualified registered dietician. now they’re calling us Registered Dietitian Nutritionists because I think people just kind of confuse the terms all the time. Nutritionists don’t necessarily have any sort of degree requirements. You could technically get a certificate over a weekend or something and call yourself a nutritionist. So, that being said, you know, nutrition knowledge is free to everyone. So I’m not a big stickler on who calls people what, but there is a distinction between the two.

[00:05:58] Martin: I think it is the same in the UK that nutritionists can just call themselves nutritionists. Like in the UK, we have certain legally protected titles. And dietitian is one of those that require just similar to what you said. I think I agree with you that the principles behind the science of nutrition and the science of dietetics are the same.

It’s just, it seems to be a different training route,

[00:06:19] Will: see, I thought the only difference was you all spelled dietitian with a C and we spell it with a T.

[00:06:25] Martin: Well, I’ll have to tell you a word for that ’cause I’m not a great speller, but yeah, that might be the case too.

[00:06:29] JP: Will, can you explain your role then as a serving dietitian within the US Army? So what’s your scope of practice? What sort of challenges do you experience on a daily basis? What’s the sort of acceptance that you get from both the troops and the chain of command?

[00:06:44] Will: Yeah, it’s a great question. So, nutrition is a broad field, and I think this is one of the things that many individuals don’t understand is that particularly in thethe U. S. Army, we work across several different kind of domains. I would maybe broadly bucket those into food service, outpatient nutrition and inpatient nutrition, and then maybe a fourth would be research, but those are kind of very distinct roles and functions. So for example, in food service, you’re typically in charge of, you know, managing a very large team of people who are producing food , at, The particular installation or facility that you work at, they’re producing the food for both customers, patrons, and then patients if you work in a hospital.

 it can range from therapeutic diets to just kind of day to day feeding. So that’s kind of one bucket. And then outpatients, you’re sitting down with individuals or sometimes in group settings and delivering nutrition education or working with somebody one on one to detail a plan for them. Whereas inpatient, you’re working with patients that have been admitted to a hospital and they need some sort of typically medical nutrition therapy. So that might be some form of feeding through a tube or feeding through a vein. and it becomes kind of like working a puzzle and then research, of course, kind of stands alone on its own as well.

So we can work across all of those different areas and, when I,joined and started working as a dietitian in the military, I thought to myself, you know, how am I ever going to be good at all of these things at the same time? But the idea typically, especially early on, is that you’re, you’rea specialized generalist.

So you want to be able to do a little bit of everything. And kind of work across those different domains. But as you stay in longer and longer, you get those opportunities to kind of specialize in different areas. And that’s where, for me, my interests have taken me in the performance and research realm.

 And, in terms of, challenges in nutrition. I mean, there are many, and it kind of depends on what the context is that we’re talking about. But if it’s one on one types of things you’re working with, withpatients, it’s no different than you probably trying to get your friend to do something different in training, or maybe,psychological support performance. It’s all comes down to behavior change and kind of working with the person one on one to get them to make those changes. So those are kind of challenges at the individual level from a broader perspective. there are several challenges, as part of the government, you’re, you kind of work within the bureaucracy and the regulations that exist. And sometimes those are meant, to cover a broad swath and kind of be pretty generic and basic. And while they try to be broad, sometimes there are some restrictions within that left and right boundaries that, that may provide some constraints or hamstring you a little bit in terms of how you want to feed and what you want to do.another challenge that I would say is of working with different types of units, getting leader buy in and buy in from the culture there. So I think everyone can agree that nutrition is an important aspect of health and performance, but in the day to day priorities of different units, it can tend to fall to the wayside.

So you’re always trying to balance the two and find where you can work into The priorities of, any particular unit so that you’re able to have an effect, while not necessarily always being the top priority. And then, in terms of trying to make an impact at the unit level, Dietitians are typically consultants. So if we’re trying to make some changes or improvements, let’s say in one of our dining facilities, We are working hand in glove with the staff there and trying to provide some guidance on, different menu development ideas or, just basic guidelines on providing certain types of nutrients, protein options, so on and so forth, variety. But at the end of the day, they are the ones running that facility. whether it does well or does not do well, kind of falls on them, not us. So they can sometimes default back to whatever the regulation says and kind of throw out some of the different performance aspects that you’re trying to work with.

So you have to kind of partner with others and develop relationships in order to make those changes. so we are, a lot of times working without that authority that you may need to be able make a positive impact. And then lastly, I say that one of the big challenges would be just general culture change.

So, you know, the Army is something that lives and breathes on culture. And, A lot of times I think now we’re starting to recognize the impact of human performance and nutrition’s role in that, but we’ve done things one way for a long time and I think getting into that and influencing it becomes a very challenge because there’s culture there and food is not just eating, people eat for various reasons socially, just because it tastes good.

It makes you feel good. There’s a lot of reasons that people eat. SoGet people to do what you know is right. What they know is right. But then overcoming some of those, cultural and individual challenges are big barriers as well.

[00:11:54] Martin: just looping back to some of the things you were saying before, Will, around education and maybe the scalability of some of the things that you talk about.

And one of the things that I wonder as a consumer of nutritional information, you open up any magazine or you go onto any social media platform and there is don’t do this, never eat that, always eat that. Lots of advice. So. Can we strip it back and maybe talk about some of the basics, like the fundamentals of what good nutrition is for the vast majority of people.

So obviously there’s performance specific or role specific nutrition, but in your opinion, what are the fundaments of good nutrition?

[00:12:32] Will: And that’s a great question. I think that’s what many people miss the boat on is just doing the basics, right? , like many other occupations, you know, you’ve got to be able to do those,core components,really well before you start trying to fine tune around the edges. So, um, in terms of basics of nutrition, you know, it comes down to balance, variety, portion control, limiting processed foods, moderation, and then you can kind of tailor around that.

So going through each of those. And we talk about balance, we’re talking about, balance of different nutrients, specifically macro nutrients. So those are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, based on the type of occupation that you have or the sport you play, you need different amounts of those.

So, for example, Individuals that are exercising and training, really intensely have a little bit higher protein needs.carbohydrates are something that, people tend to under consume, because I think one of the big trends, as you mentioned, is, low carbohydrate, high fat diets, which have their place and can be used, certainly, But I think generally day to day, and particularly for those in high performance fields, we generally tend to under consume carbohydrates. And those are really key nutrient sources for performance. So, Balance is one of the first focuses of general fundamental nutrition. A variety of foods. So, So that’s as simple as it sounds. So most people, whenever they’re trying to go on some sort of diet, that variety actually becomes smaller.

And sometimes that’s functional because makes things a little bit, simpler and you can kind of cook one or two things and eat that throughout the week. The classic bodybuilder, chicken, broccoli, and rice is a great example of that. And again, those aren’t bad foods, but if that’s all you’re eating, then you’re missing out on a lot of other nutrients that. play a role in both performance and recovery. So varieties is key aspect of that. Generally when we talk about variety , you want to be eating different colors. So fruits, vegetables across the color spectrum, those colors are actually, , intuitive indicators of different nutrients in foods. And usually the deeper and richer the color, the more concentrated those nutrients.

So for example, if you think of, an apple that you would buy in the store that maybe is kind of lightly colored versus one that you might pick off a tree that’s, very rich in, in reds and greens and yellows. those deep, deep colors are typically indicative of different nutrients found in those foods. And then across the different colors are different types of nutrients. So eating variety of colors is a good way to kind of, intuitively know that you’re getting variety in your foods. And the same goes with proteins and grains and other, food groups. Portion control is one that, is dictated by your activity level.

So, many people are trying to lose weight. or at least maintain their weight. So portion control on the smaller end, of course, makes sense there. But again, when thinking about high performing athletes, portion control is something that we’re to typically, increase.

And depending on people’s appetite levels and satiety levels, sometimes that can be its own challenge making sure that people are eating enough to adequately recover and maintain their,their weight. Individuals operating in extreme temperature environments, particularly hot environments.

 Hydration’s a key aspect of fundamental nutrition. It’s not the sexiest thing in the world, but, uh, water and water with some electrolytes is one of the easiest things you can do to maintain performance in those high temperature environments. So drinking enough throughout the day. And then, around those competition levels is a key aspect of nutrition.

 one of the,the other components of fundamental nutrition is limiting processed foods and added sugars. If you go into a grocery store, over 70 percent of the foods have added sugars in them, which is pretty remarkable. And, that can sometimes be just, you know, something to balance the flavor, but a lot of times It’s loads of added sugar that’s adding calories and not typically coming with much nutrition alongside that.

So, added sugars in processed foods, things that you’re finding in packaged, food products are going to be things that tend to be more highly processed. As a general rule of thumb, I typically tell people foods that have ingredients or less are a good rule of thumb, but less is better in terms of processing.

So.things that you’ll find on the perimeter of the aisles are typically the things that you want to search for. And then, once you’ve done all those things, then it comes down tailoring needs around the individual. And that’s when we talk about specific health goals or performance goals, cultural preferences, or different dietary requirements that we’ll start honing in and focusing on specific nutrients and timing and so forth.

[00:17:21] Martin: Great stuff. It reminds me of a video that a nutritionist that I’ve worked with, before in the UK, he, sometimes does his educational piece around the basics of nutrition and he shows a video of how hot dogs are made, the processing involved in making a hot dog. And I’ve not eaten one 

[00:17:38] JP: Aw, don’t 


me that. 

[00:17:39] Will: I was going to say, if that doesn’t turn you off from eating hot 


[00:17:42] Martin: oh. It’s disgusting. 

[00:17:43] JP: That’s what I was gonna have for my lunch.

[00:17:44] Martin: you won’t. If you watch this video, jp, go onto to, uh, YouTube and, and look at it. It, it is disgusting, on that issue of, portion control. How much to eat or maybe how many carbohydrates? What’s the balance of How do we know so if you’ve got someone who has got a relatively sedentary job or lifestyle Maybe they spend a lot of time sat a screen Versus someone who’s got a highly active role in the tactical sphere or they were like you say performance athletes and that Are there simple ways that listeners can?

You use to get a rule of thumb rather than, you know, the complex lab based assessments for things like basal metabolic rate. Like, how do we know how much we need to eat?

[00:18:27] Will: that’s an excellent question. And I think the easiest way to go about this is using the plate method. So, this is used oftentimes in, in performance realms where if you divide the plate in kind of quarters and you think about a quarter of your plate being protein based, a quarter of it being. something of, uh, nutrient dense foods like, fruits and vegetables, and then a quarter being something that’s carbohydrate, based. So those would be grains, potatoes. you could also lump fruits into that, but very carbohydrate rich foods. So people that are in jobs that tend to be more sedentary, you probably only need about a quarter of your plate being very carbohydrate rich foods. As your activity level and intensity of activity goes up, that will start to go up to a third and even sometimes up to a half of your plate or your meal should be from those carbohydrate rich foods, the pastas, the, rices, potatoes, so on and so forth. So it really is dependent on your activity level and the intensity of activity that you’re doing.

And that can change even for the same person and If you’ve got, an athlete who does high intensity activity, they may tend to eat more high carbohydrate rich meals, half their plate of carbohydrate rich meals surrounding their activities that they’re doing and then maybe post activity to replenish glycogen stores or the stores for me or carbohydrates and then on non training days, they may scale that back and go more to a third or even a quarter of their plate of carbohydrates.

So even within the individual, you can kind of adjust that carbohydrate portion meal to meal based on your activity level.

[00:20:12] Martin: you scale it back and only having a quarter of the plate of those carbohydrate rich foods, would you scale up the protein or would you scale up the fruit and veg? what’s gonna go up as carbs maybe come down?

[00:20:23] Will: Yeah, depending on again, maybe total energy needs and where somebody needs to be for calories to maintain gain or lose weight. I would recommend that people typically start by scaling up the vegetable end of that. But then again, if they’re, you know, doing a lot of resistance training, and just need more proteins or just have a larger body and have higher protein requirements than scaling up protein. and in the absence of the carbohydrates would be what you would want to do.

[00:20:51] Martin: Great. So I’m going to ditch my McDonald’s for lunch then and start looking at some lower,carbohydrate options and more fruit and veg. Got 

[00:20:58] Will: Step one, 

you’re on the right 

[00:21:00] Martin: I’m sorted. That’s it. Thanks Will.

[00:21:02] JP: Well, sorry, going to the other end of the spectrum then, for those individuals who work in these sort of high resilience roles, so your warfighter, police, fire service, obviously they can be in situations where they have quite a large calorific energy expenditure, often isn’t offset by what’s provided within ration packs, for example.

What’s the potential implications of that if they go into calorific demand? deficit because I know over here in Europe there’s a lot of talk and discussion around the concept of relative energy deficiency syndrome and sport and indeed I’ve seen some articles now talking about Red M so that specific applicability to the military.

What’s the sort of downstream effects of that if someone is in a negative calorific balance for a protracted length of time? 

[00:21:45] Will: So the short answer is, declines in performance that can be both physical and cognitive performance. And then eventually health starts to decline. When it comes to relative energy deficiency in operational settings, this is something that literature has laid out pretty clearly that, as you mentioned, warfighters that are heavily reliant on rations, lot of things can happen there.

Number one, if you’re solely relying on, rations, there’s limited menu options there. So something as simple as mini fatigue can occur. And with that, you start to have a decline in appetite and ultimately your total intake goes down you’re consuming less calories overall. And, that starts to have implications on performance and health. So both physical and cognitive performance and then eventually health, meaning things like your immune system starts to not function as well. as war fighters, you know, as their intake declines over time, particularly during these operational settings, you’ll start to see losses of fat mass and lean mass And what we know is that once you’ve lost a certain amount body mass and the exact numbers are still a little bit unclear that somewhere around five up to 8 percent of your body mass when you hit that level, then you start to see moderate to significant declines in physical performance. So counteracting that with, different supplemental packs and nutrition to find ways to increase energy needs or energy consumption, can offset that and preserve performance in those operational settings. 

[00:23:24] Martin: so Will, in, in, time restricted factor. So when, people just don’t have time to prepare their meals or to access a kitchen, maybe not necessarily with a ration pack, maybe other jobs, other occupations where they have to choose their own food, but they have to choose things they can prepare in a very short amount of time.

Have you got any, advice around what would be good and quick.

[00:23:50] Will: So generally, I would encourage people first to the extent possible to do some meal preparation. , I think the easiest way to go about doing that is most people can get by with consuming about two or three different food items throughout the week. So what I would do is when you do have time several days before you’re going to be on extended periods of, work or maybe shift work. You can, batch cook protein, let’s say chicken, in an instant pot, and while that’s going, you can roast off, Sheet pans of vegetables and then, on the stove top, cook some, potatoes or rice to go with that. And then you can, pack that away and have that available to you. and if you’re cooking in different ways that kind of have variety in those different things that you’re cooking off, you can mix and match that throughout the week. So, for example, the chicken may be used in just kind of a. Chicken vegetables and potatoes way in one meal and then you might reuse it and make like a Chicken burrito bowl and another and then you might make Some sort of curry or something in a third way. So using the same items in different ways and kind of making those in large batches so that you can prep those throughout the week. In the absence of that, it’s always a good thing to have some different items on hand. And again, this goes back to the fundamentals of nutrition that we were talking about earlier, whereby, you want a protein, you want something with some micronutrients in it, usually a fruit and vegetable. fruits are Nature’s on the go food, right? You don’t have to do anything to them having those on hand and then maybe something to kind of go with it, . Um, some nut butter with an apple.

some beef jerky. those types of things, having those readily available. And again, as I mentioned earlier as well, , there’s a lot more variety in terms of these types of food items that you can get on the grocery shelves these days. And trying to find something that has fewer ingredients and less preservatives is optimal as well.

[00:25:52] Martin: That’s great advice. Thanks Will.


[00:25:54] JP: Well, so obviously the concept of human form optimization is gaining a lot more traction now over the past two decades, arguably, and it sort of all came to fruition in the form of the development and implementation of the U. S. Army’s new holistic force fitness doctrine. So with that in mind, could you just provide our listeners an insight into what is H2F and what is the role of nutrition within this overarching concept?

[00:26:19] Will: So holistic health and fitness is the army’s, latest and greatest program. And kind of uses the model of collegiate and professional sports whereby you are using a holistic approach to the athlete or in this case, the war fighter. So what we’ve done is we’ve created teams that have strength and conditioning coaches, mental performance specialists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and of course, dietitians. And we work. together to, promote the health and performance of the warfighter. So H2F in the States kind of has a long history and its genesis dates back to special operations communities, I think back kind of in the mid 2000s. US Army Rangers had the Ranger athlete warrior program, I had several colleagues and mentors of mine that were a part of that program and getting that up and running. And then, we had the Thor three program and the special forces groups and that’s evolved over time. And,as. leaders were seeing some of the benefits to that they could see how that could be applied across the Entire force and now we have that across both special operations and conventional forces and nutrition plays a critical role in holistic health and fitness Primarily the things that we talked about earlier both kind of day to day nutrition that focuses on your general feeding practices, performance concepts and recovery from training.

Those are kind of some of the big things. We also work pretty closely with some of our dining facilities to influence what’s being served to war fighters. So that we can improve some of the performance components because one of the barriers that we run into and we continue to run into to some extent is that dieticians can be telling you, you know, this, you want to eat this way for performance and recovery, and then they go out to the dining facilities and those options aren’t always available.

So, you have to work with. the components that are actually serving the food to make sure that those items are available for warfighters. And we continue to make strides there.one of the more recent kind of things that we’ve been doing is, doing meal prep programs. So dining facilities will actually make, pre done meals, pre packaged meals,for warfighters to come and they can pick up and take those with them and consume those whenever they have time in their own space.

So. Those are some of the advancements made. but kind of coming back to nutrition’s role in holistic health and fitness. beyond the day to day, beyond the health, human performance, it’s, also creating the environment, so that war fighters have available to them the things that they need.

And this is where we continue to evolve in nutrition is modernizing the way that we feed soldiers .

[00:29:01] Martin: now. Well, I,I’m a psychologist. I, I, work in the areas of resilience of, of, the cognitive components of human performance. So how does nutrition fit? in my world? how do the things that we eat influence the quality of our psychological performance? Is there a relationship there?

[00:29:18] Will: Yes, absolutely. So nutrition, impact on cognition if we’re talking about day to day feeding practices, many people, again, aren’t doing kind of the fundamentals correctly. And so, if you’re in a place where your state of health isn’t optimal, and let’s say, for example, you’re having big blood glucose or blood sugar. swings, right? So, someone may have a meal, have a big blood sugar, dump into their, the stream and be performing pretty well for 30, 45 minutes. But then as your blood sugar starts to crash, so does your cognition. So one of the things in terms of feeding and nutrition is stabilizing blood sugar.

And, andthe more stable you can get those blood sugar, levels, the more stable your cognition typically is. And this is where people like to toy around with varying levels of carbohydrate consumption. Some people even on, on low carbohydrate diets or ketogenic diets see a lot of cognitive benefit. But again, all of that stuff is context specific.

Ketogenic diets are not necessarily appropriate for somebody that’s also very physically active all the time or doing specifically high intensity physical activity.so that is one way that nutrition impacts cognition. there are other compounds I would say thatthat can impact cognition. So for example, caffeine is one, as a stimulant that can have a positive effect on cognition. So when we think about war fighters doing either shift work or long duration missions, of course the longer that duration goes and, and sleep. quality and time starts to go down. Then, using caffeine and very targeted and time doses can help maintain some of your cognition during operations. So, on both sides of the fence, you know, day to day nutrition, stabilizing blood sugar levels that can impact cognition as well as key nutrients can also impact cognition.

[00:31:19] Martin: You mentioned caffeine, then, as an alerting substance that is staving off sleep. It’s, you know, it’s keeping us awake. How about other things in the nutritionist’s toolbox, if you will, that’s gonna, make sleep better? How does nutrition factor in rest and recovery and sleep?

[00:31:37] Will: So one of the things would be timing you know, if you eat a big meal right before you go to bed,that can impact your, both your sleep duration and sleep quality. So you may think that you’ve slept through the night, but you’ve typically, end up tossing and turning a bunch. And, You may have kind of some micro sleep throughout the night. So eating big meals right before you go to bed can be detrimental to sleep. So typically you want to kind of back that up and have your last meal, a couple hours before bedtime is typically a good rule of thumb. so you can kind of prevent that from occurring. So timing is one thing. and then there are other foods that, either have melatonin or promote melatonin production. So,cherries, tart cherry juice are food items that can have natural melatonin in them. So that can promote sleep, onset and help people that have a hard time going to sleep, kind of initiate that sleep.

 So there are components within, foods that can help people Sleep onset and then of course timing nutrition helps kind of dictate the quality of the sleep.

[00:32:41] JP: So, well, sort of expanding upon that a little bit further, so delving slightly into the world of supplementation obviously there’s that many supplementations and that much snake oil out there, it’s unreal, but there’s sort of two areas the contemporary literature which is of interest.

So creatine, and not in regards to utilising creatine as an energy substrate to get massive, but more utilising creatine to limit the impact of concussive events for example. But also tyrosine, the amino acid, the potential use of tyrosine. Tyrosine to enhance cognitive performance also under stress.

What’s your sort of a, your take on those two supplements and any others which have a reasonable evidence base and also are legal?

[00:33:22] Will: Yeah, when it comes to nutrition supplements There’s a lot that’s out there probably a lot less that are actually useful for promoting performance or recovery as you mentioned say for example from traumatic brain injury, so would say the top supplements on my list of ones to use, for general health and performance would be creatine.

As you mentioned, it’s probably one of the most well studied nutrition supplements. And, there’s a lot of literature showing that not only is it beneficial for, promotion of,strength and muscle, but also there’s some benefits to the heart and brain as well. So creatine is something that’s, cheap, it’s readily available, and it’s very well researched.

So, not a bad one to take. Caffeine, as we mentioned, I would say the one thing about caffeine is that, consistent consumption of caffeine, you know, you can have kind of a diminished effect of it. So, try not to consume too much throughout the day so that when you do consume it, you can consume it in targeted doses so that it has, more of an effect.

Thanks. another supplement that can have some benefit is just, you know, your everyday protein powder or even essential amino acids. So I wouldn’t recommend to replace, you know, food when you have access to that, but when it comes back to convenience and consuming foods on the go and just making sure that you’re dosing protein throughout the day, protein powders can be an effective supplement to use. And this goes back to the question of eating on the go. So having a protein supplement that is easily mixed and easily consumed is something that you can have. Most people are vitamin D deficient. So vitamin D is another one. and there’s more and more research showing that it has. wide ranging impacts from muscle recovery can help mitigate some inflammation in the body and also has some effects on sleep. Most people internationally are vitamin D insufficient or deficient, meaning they just don’t have enough. So vitamin D is, again, a very cheap supplement to take And then the last one that I typically like to. recommend and take myself as a basic omega 3 fish oil supplement. So, omega 3 fatty acids are pretty important for mitigating the inflammatory response so they can be helpful in recovery. And there’s,there’s more literature coming out that demonstrates both its effects on prevention and recovery from traumatic brain injury. So this is certainly something that’s relevant to the war fighter, particularly those. being exposed to different concussive events, and that could be both, large concussion in an operational environment as well as smaller concussive events during just general training, whether that’s breaching doors or field artillery, those types of occupations and functions. So omega 3 fatty acids can be for, prophylactically or preventative in those scenarios as well as,in recovery.

But then there’s more literature coming out now that it may actually be, helpful in improving, muscle quality. And,some different performance metrics, strength and power performance there. So keep an eye out on the literature there for omega 3 fatty acids and its effects there. But it seems to be one that’s going to have a positive effects systematically across the body.

[00:36:34] Martin: Do any of those supplements have any effect on, on more psychological stress? Is there anything that we can take that helps people deal with the more psychological side of stress rather than physiological stresses? what are your opinions on, on those sorts of supplements? 

[00:36:48] Will: Sure. Going back to omega 3 fatty acids, there are not to get too technical, but there are a few different types. the common ones that you’ll see will be DHA and EPA. And there is some, literature to support that, consuming those DHA and more particularly EPA, seems to have a positive effect on different psychological health outcomes.

So for example, depression is one where there’s been a lot of literature in, using omega 3 as a therapeutic for different psychological health.

[00:37:21] Martin: Are there any caveats? Like, are there any certain groups of people who definitely shouldn’t be taking these sort of supplements? where are the red lines, I guess?

[00:37:29] Will: Well, I think The biggest thing to consider when taking supplements, is the safety and quality of them. Supplements, nutritional supplements are kind of the wild, wild west. There’s really no regulation around them. So the best you can do is look for what are called third party tested supplements. And there are several organizations that do this. so NSF for sport, is one, consumer labs, and there are several others. One of the, websites that we have here in the U. S. that’s a fantastic resource for nutritional supplements is the Operational Supplement Safety website. website. you can go there and there’s a lot of information on supplements, safe supplement use. And there’s also an ask the experts link. So you can type in a question about supplements, you know, ranging from, is this supplement safe? Where should I get this supplement? So on and so forth. Type it in, send that, question off to the experts and they get back to you, pretty quickly and give you, some nice. detailed information on whatever supplement that you’re interested in. So those are good resources and references for, individuals trying to take supplements. But the most important thing, like I said, is looking for third party tested supplements because that’s going to ensure that the quality and safety and content of those supplements are what they say they are on the label and don’t have any sort of harmful contaminants or other products in them.

[00:38:56] Martin: Yeah, that’s great. Can you just repeat one more time the name of that website so we can, uh, our listeners can write it down? We’ll get it in the show notes as well.

[00:39:03] Will: Yes, that’s operational supplement safety. And I believe it’s OPSS. org.

[00:39:10] Martin: Okay, we’ll, we’ll find it and we’ll put it in the show notes. ’cause I’m gonna look at that after, uh, after we finish recording.

[00:39:16] Will: Okay, perfect. 

[00:39:17] JP: Well, a couple of years ago, you published a really interesting article on the concept of precision performance nutrition. Could you just expand upon that further? What is it and can it be applied at scale?

[00:39:30] Will: So the idea there is that,we all know just by changing different aspects of our own diets that people are affected by nutrition differently. And we see this in research as well. And that’s evidenced by the variation in data. So you can expose, a hundred people to the same dietary intervention and you’re going to get, a pretty broad range of responses. On average, you may see that individuals are positively affected by a dietary intervention. But, the individual doesn’t work on averages. So, our recommendations generally come from those average responses to a particular dietary intervention. But at the individual level, we don’t necessarily always see those same responses.

So, the,the idea is of precision nutrition or precision performance nutrition is to be able to apply different nutrition concepts at the individual level. And what this would look like would be integrating different aspects of one’s own physiology. So, that can be data from their genetics, their metabolomics, behavioral, sociocultural factors. And on and on, and you’re taking that information at the individual level and developing different nutrition interventions around particular person. We’re not quite there yet, but some of the things that are evolving over time that are helping us get there and allowing us to have that ability are advances in technology.

So,metabolomics. For example, as I mentioned, this is kind of someone’s response to different foods and nutrients in their body. you can do high throughput metabolomics, much quicker and at a cheaper cost than you could say 10 years ago. So as those technologies continue to become cheaper, that’s going to kind of influence this field.

The other thing is, tracking and monitoring. So there are technologies that allow us to use continuous real time monitoring. Probably easiest example to look to for this would be, blood glucose monitors. So in diabetic populations, these are widely used and something that, that drives and directs our interventions around people with diabetes. If you apply that same concept and broaden the, types of endpoints that you can measure in the system and then turn that around and use that information to, impact, How you’re training, how you’re fueling and so on. That’s kind of the idea around making those more tailored interventions. And as that technology continues to grow with continuous real time monitoring, I anticipate that we’ll see, the ability to be able to do that. Now, one of the challenges there is, You still have to be able to process and manage that.

So just because you have data doesn’t mean that you necessarily know what to do with it. So if you have a stream of information coming at you, you have to be able to select the pieces of thatthat are actually usable and create platforms that give an individual the ability to be able to act on that information.

So As all of those different, components continue to evolve, and technologies evolve, I think we’ll start to get closer and closer to that concept of precision performance nutrition.

[00:42:44] JP: Oh, interesting, really interesting.

[00:42:46] Martin: Yeah, I’d be, I’d be, uh, interested to see how that, pans out in the future. Now as someone who’s clearly on, on the cutting edge of,practice, of, dietetics, of nutrition and someone who is also an expert in the research as well, on the cutting edge of the research side of things, what do you think are gonna be the next big things in nutrition?

in five years time, maybe something that’s changed the field, either in practice or in research.

[00:43:12] Will: So, you know, one thing we still don’t do well, which is kind of surprising, is monitor people’s intake. so the methods used would be different survey techniques, journaling techniques and questionnaires. And those do a decent job at estimating intake, but we still don’t have a good handle on what people are actually consuming. And until you can kind of become more specific and accurate with that, it’s kind of hard to start making some of those more tailored interventions to some extent. So I think advancements in the ability of being able to monitor individual intake is going to be an important one.

And some of the different attempts at this have been using, for example, photographic technology. So just simply taking a picture of a meal and then apps do kind of its best job at estimating the contents, both macronutrient, micronutrient contents of those food items in that meal. And again, that technology is not quite there, but it is one that’s under development. So that’s one, I think that’s going to be an important one to kind of help us advance down the field. other ones that help us understand what nutrients are being utilized during performance. and so there’s different ultrasound technologies, indirect calorimeters that can kind of help you get. A better understanding of what mix of macronutrients that you’re using during activity, those types of technologies, are becoming a little bit more mobile so that you can use them while training and, kind of gives you a better sense of what, nutrient mixes that you’re using during those and helps you kind of key in on, fueling strategies .

So those are a couple. It really kind of depends on the context and the specifics of the question when it comes to advancements in nutrition technology. there’s a lot of ground there and it’s a open field for discovery.

[00:45:11] Martin: always throw a hand grenade question in most episodes. I think that was yours. One that’s a tough one to answer. So you did very well. Thanks. Well, thanks. Well, now I’m acutely aware that you’re a very busy man so, At this point, I’d like to say thank you from us.

This has been fascinating. we all eat, we all drink. We need to consume food as a basic biological need. And so when we have people like you coming in and explaining some complex things really clearly, it resonates because we all do it.

So thanks for coming on and thanks for sharing, sharing your opinions today.

[00:45:43] Will: Yeah, it’s been my pleasure and I really enjoyed it. And, we’ll love to do this again sometime if there’s any interest there and we can kind of talk about some different, topics in this, growing field of human performance.

[00:45:55] Martin: Yeah, I’m sure, I’m sure we could do a part two, part three, part 10 at some point. absolutely. If people want to reach out and contact you or learn about what you’re doing, what’s the best way of people finding more about you? Well,

[00:46:11] Will: I don’t have a huge social media presence, at least beyond my individual accounts. I think my Instagram is just William Conkright. So I don’t know how many of them there are out there, but you can certainly find me that way. and, uh. and, you surfing 

[00:46:26] Martin: things out, 



[00:46:26] Will: might be. I think that’s the extent of it. 

I think the easiest way to get a hold of me would be via email. So, my, uh, personal email is, wrc16 at pitt, p i t t dot e d u.So you can, certainly reach out to me over email. And I’m happy to have any discussions there. 

[00:46:47] Martin: That’s great. Well, thank you very much for your time again. As I say, it’s been really informative, really enjoyable.

[00:46:52] Will: Likewise. 

[00:46:54] JP: Thanks bud.

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