How Targeted Nutrition Gives Airmen a Mental, Physical Edge

How Targeted Nutrition Gives Airmen a Mental, Physical Edge

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Research from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Abbott and the U.S. Air Force Research Lab show airmen reaped physical performance and cognition benefits from a specialized nutrition drink.

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OCT. 19, 2020   4 MIN. READ

Nutrition has long been linked to better performance, whether it's propelling athletes toward big victories or helping students ace important tests. But more recently, experts have begun to wonder whether certain nutrients could impact performance in specific ways.

As part of an ongoing collaboration between Abbott, the University of Illinois, and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, a new study set out to answer this question by examining nutrition's impact on the performance of men and women in the U.S. Air

About the Study

Researchers divided 148 men and women of the U.S. Air Force into two groups. For 12 weeks, one group did a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) routine, while the other performed the same exercise regimen while adding a targeted nutrition supplement to their diets.

The group that combined exercise with this twice-a-day supplement saw better improvements in key mental and physical performance areas, including problem-solving and reaction time than the group that relied on exercise alone.

Over and above the impact of HIIT, the group consuming the high-protein nutritional drink containing lutein, omega-3 fatty acid DHA, phospholipids and Beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB) displayed

  • Improved working memory by 11 percent (i.e., information processing and problem-solving).

  • Improved reaction time by 6 percent.  

  • Increased muscle mass by more than two pounds.

  • Lowered resting heart rate by 8 percent- a sign of increased cardiovascular fitness.

"We've been researching the impact of nutrition on brain function for more than a decade,″ says study author Matthew Kuchan, Ph.D., a research fellow and brain health scientist at Abbott. ″These results confirm that by combining the right nutrition and exercise, people who are facing high-multi-tasking situations can stay sharp physically and mentally when they need it most."

But you don't have to be a member of the Air Force to reap these same performance benefits. Here's how each of the key ingredients in the study's nutrition beverage can help you perform at your very best, both physically and mentally, and a few ways you can incorporate more of them into your diet.


Protein is the nutritional basis for muscle health, which impacts both physical strength and cognition. And, as Abbott research has shown, many adults consistently fall short of getting enough protein.

To get more of this key nutrient, prioritize protein-rich foods such as lean meats, seafood, eggs, dairy, soy, legumes, quinoa, nuts and seeds in your diet. You can also up your intake with a milk protein-based targeted nutrition beverage such as Ensure® Max Protein.


Lutein is a carotenoid that's responsible for the bright color of several foods, including bell peppers, carrots, corn, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, egg yolks, avocados, oranges and melons. It can also be found in dark leafy greens, such as spinach and kale.

But why do we need lutein? In addition to supporting eye health, a study of supplemental lutein in healthy young adults has resulted in improved spatial memory, reasoning ability and complex attention.


Concentrated within the brain, DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid that contributes to improved cognitive function. It does this by strengthening the connections between neurons as well as reducing markers of inflammation.

Fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna, are great whole sources of DHA, as are avocados, walnuts and olive oil.


Phospholipids are a foundational component of cell membranes found throughout the body. They're a type of lipid, or fatty acid, that can be found in foods such as egg yolks, milk and certain seafood, including fish and roe.

Recent research has shown that phospholipids can play an important role in improving a variety of cognitive processes, including lifelong memory and learning.


This compound is instrumental in preserving muscle mass, especially during periods of inactivity. It's a byproduct of the body breaking down the amino acid leucine, which is found in protein. However, our bodies only convert about 5% of leucine into HMB — and that's where targeted nutrition comes in handy.

Experts recommend an intake of three grams of HMB for muscle health. It can be found in foods such as avocado, grapefruit, cauliflower and catfish, but only in tiny amounts. Adding a supplement with HMB, such as the targeted nutrition beverage Ensure® Enlive, to your diet can help you get more of this key compound.

How Else Can Nutrition Fuel Performance?

Vitamins B12 and Folate, C, D, and E also play an essential role in supporting healthy brain function. Specifically, B vitamins help your body get the most mental and physical benefits from protein. Not getting enough of these critical micronutrients can put you at risk for cognitive decline.

Prioritizing a balanced diet of whole foods can help you get the energy and nutrition you need for peak performance and optimal cognition. However, everyone's nutrition needs are different, so it's best to speak with your physician to determine how much you need of each of these vitamins.

Although the drink the airmen received isn't available to the general public, the ingredients it contained can be easily found in your grocery or pharmacy or health supplements store. You may not consume them in the same way, but incorporating them into your diet may help you reap performance benefits nonetheless. 

Optimizing Hydration for Athletes

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Soccer players in action during a match in a stadium full of fans.


Water makes up two-thirds of the body's composition, and one way that humans lose water is through sweat, which is amplified during exercise. Sweat is more than just water. It also includes electrolytes, such as sodium, chloride, magnesium and potassium. These electrolytes help the body retain fluid, making them a crucial part of hydration for athletes.

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Abbott Scientists Inducted into AIMBE College of Fellows | Abbott Nutrition

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Albert Einstein once said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence.” Two of Abbott’s top medical nutrition researchers have spent their careers questioning, and because of that innate curiosity, they have made major contributions to their field –creating widespread impact on the scientific community and in the field of medical nutrition.

The American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) announced the induction of two of Abbott’s lead nutrition researchers, Rachael H. Buck, Ph.D., and Ricardo Rueda-Cabrera, MD, Ph.D. to its College of Fellows.

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