It has been difficult to gain a perspective on recent research because so much of the research on human eating focuses on the individual and the food. This report also treats the individual and the food, but will add an important third dimension, the eating situation or context. These three factors together are necessary to understand why soldiers eat or do not eat, and they must be considered and addressed to improve the current situation. Below is a brief outline of how the meeting and the book were conceived and developed to fully cover these three topics and other important issues.
Interest in what goes on in the field regarding Army personnel and rations and whether there is a problem of underconsumption began in 1983 with the first extended, comparative test of a field ration. NRDEC conducted a 34-d test, with one group receiving 3 Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MREs)/d providing 3,600 kcal and a control group receiving 2 fresh meals and 1 MRE/d providing the same number of calories. The MRE group ate an average of 2,189 kcal over the 34 days, but their caloric intake continuously declined over that period, ending at 1,681 kcal. Soldiers lost an average of 8.11 lbs (3.7 kg) (4.7 percent body weight), with some individuals losing up to 11 percent body weight. The soldiers rated their food 7.05 on a standard 9-point hedonic rating scale (Hirsch et al., 1985).
At about the same time, a study was conducted with a comparison group of young males (university students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT]) consuming MREs. Participants received either 3 MREs/d or freshly prepared food for 45 days. Of course, the students did not receive their food out-of-doors as the soldiers did. The students had tables and chairs, set mealtimes, tableware and dishes, and the ability to heat food. The MIT students averaged a daily caloric intake of 3,149 kcal over the 45 days. Their caloric intake also declined over the 45 days. They lost a little weight (average, 1.5 lbs [0.7 kg] or 1 percent body weight). They rated the food 6.05 on the standard 9-point hedonic rating scale (Hirsch and Kramer, 1993; Kramer et al., 1992).
It was not clear during initial comparisons of the soldier study and the student study what was responsible for the 1,000 kcal difference in intake and the 1.0 difference in acceptance ratings. Soldiers rated their food higher but ate less; students rated their food lower but ate more. During analysis, the food and the individual were considered first; then it became apparent that the eating situation should be examined.
The analysis had begun to develop further when a paper for the 1987 meeting on food acceptability was published, stating that "field studies have led us to conclude that important factors controlling consumption of food in natural eating situations are the situational variables which make it more or less convenient for us to eat and which signal meal times" (Meiselman et al., 1988, p. 77).