Summer 2016

Battle-Ready Bellies

The keeper of the digestive peace

By Julie Flaherty

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J. Philip Karl, N14, is a research dietitian at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. Photo: John Soares

Traveler’s diarrhea is an intestinal illness usually caused by a bacterial infection. It’s a drag for vacationers, but far worse for deployed soldiers.

“They are not going to be out in the field fighting; they are going to be compromised,” says J. Philip Karl, N14, a research dietitian at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts. “It’s a huge problem.”

A means of keeping the digestive peace may lie in the portable Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) that soldiers rely on in the field. Karl is conducting a study of how these packaged rations affect the digestive system to figure out whether tweaking the ingredients could boost the gut health of military personnel.

“We know that bacteria that live in our intestinal tract have a big influence on human health,” he says. By changing the prebiotic content of the meals, likely by adding combinations of dietary fibers that beneficial gut bacteria consume, he hopes to encourage healthful microbes to thrive in the intestine. “We think we can create an environment that really deters the growth and invasion of pathogenic bacteria or viruses.”

Karl, who has worked at the Army lab since 2004, has always been interested in eating behaviors. But he became fascinated by microbiology and bacteriology while finishing his doctorate at Tufts, where he contributed to a whole-grains study at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging.

Adding beneficial bacteria directly into the meals is unlikely for now, as the MREs have to be shelf-stable for three years at 80 degrees. Karl says the military’s high-tech food science might get there one day. But a brownie with extra fiber? It could be a first line of peptic defense.

Julie Flaherty, the editor of this magazine, can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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