The study by authors from Ljubljana, Slovenia, used an anonymous questionnaire to collect data from 488 participants over 12 months.
The study found that military rank, participation in military operations, and physical activity were the main determinants of the specific supplements used.
It also reported that participants who used food supplements and similar products (FSSPs) more frequently were privates (72%), the lowest grade of enlisted personnel.
In general, typical users of FSSPs were those younger than 40 years with higher education, high physical activity, and a higher Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) score.
The findings are in line with previous reports, where a higher prevalence of supplementation was particularly notable among more physically active participants and in those with higher education.
The authors explain: “Supplementation practices are very closely related to personal knowledge in the area of nutrition and health.”
The unique physical and mental demands placed on military personnel are well understood.
While dietary supplementation is widespread in various population groups, it may be particularly prevalent in military personnel, especially those deployed in hostile environments under extreme conditions.
A previous report found that, while the nutritional composition of meals served to Slovenian Armed Forces (SAF) members were found to be compliant with dietary recommendations, some soldiers did not consume enough food to meet their dietary needs.
With little regulation on food supplement usage, it's expected that many military members turn to supplementation to meet these needs, but authors of the current study note that data on this topic is limited.
To address this research gap, the new study was designed to assess the prevalence of food supplement use among military personnel.
The authors mention that while previous studies have focused on the assessment of the prevalence of use of selected groups of food supplements or selected predefined products, the strength of this new study is in its large sample size and in the fact that data collection was linked to the use of specific food supplements and similar products.
Data were collected from a sample of volunteer participants ages 21-60, 89% of whom were male. 54% of participants were privates and 29% were non-commissioned officers, while the remainder were those with higher military ranks and others.
The study recorded the use of food supplements and functional foods available in single-sized portions and found that 67% of men and 71% of women reported using FSSPs.
A higher prevalence of the general use of FSSPs was observed in subjects with high physical activity (76%).
The authors note: “Surprisingly, the lowest prevalence was observed in subjects returning from military operations abroad (62%), a result comparable to the use of FSSPs in British Army soldiers in training.”
The highest prevalence of using FSSPs was recorded for combinations of vitamins and minerals (46%), followed by vitamin and protein supplements (36%) and mineral supplements (30%).
The most frequently reported reasons for taking vitamin–mineral supplements were the improvement of immune system function (66%) and compensation for the inadequate intake of certain nutrients in a regular diet (60%) with vitamin C or vitamin D being the prominent vitamin supplements.
75% of participants stated that their use of mineral supplements was for body regeneration, with magnesium supplements as the main mineral supplement recorded.
The authors note: “This was expected because magnesium is widely used among athletes and those with higher physical activity for reasons including its potential to enhance muscle recovery after exercise.”
Protein supplements, such as whey protein isolate powder, were also used by 36% of respondents. The study observed a higher prevalence of protein supplement use among non-commissioned officers (in comparison with privates and higher ranks).
79% of study participants explained that they were using these products for recovery and 68% said it was to increase physical capability.
19% reported using energy drinks and caffeine containing FSSPs, with the most commonly reported reasons for their use being the prevention of drowsiness (61%) and reducing fatigue (60%), with a higher prevalence of use recorded in those returning from military operations abroad (25%).
Omega-3 fatty acid supplements were used by 18% of respondents.
The authors note that their estimation of the intake levels of constituents of food supplements “is particularly valuable for the assessment of benefits and risks related to supplementation practices.”
“Further studies in this area should focus on the identification of knowledge gaps related to dietary supplementation,” they conclude.
There were some limitations to the study. The authors note: “Intake estimations were carried out with the end-limit scenario of using multiple products without corrections for seasonal differences and may, therefore, have resulted in somewhat overestimated values in specific cases.
“For example, some subjects reported the use of different brands of similar FSSPs. While this did not affect the prevalence estimates for the use of specific types of FSSPs, estimates of the daily intake of the constituents of such products have, consequently, been affected.”
"Assessment of the Use of Food Supplements by Military Personnel: Study Protocol and Results”
Authors: Igor Pravst, Živa Lavriša, Hristo Hristov, Maša Hribar, Sanja Krušič, Katja Žmitek, Anita Kušar, Katja Zdešar Kotnik, Petra Golja, Anja Čibej Andlovec and Larisa Pograjc.