With every passing day, the 33 Chilean miners who've been sitting under 2,300 feet of rock since August 5th set a world record for time trapped underground.
Estimates as to when they will be rescued range from mid-November to the end of December. All of the men, ranging in age from 19 to 63, will use the same makeshift latrine, multiple times a day, for months on end. Their living space is believed to total 50 square meters or so. It's always a humid 85 F.
If the Chilean miners are rescued in three months' time, ask yourself what you were doing three months ago, and consider all that you've done since. Now imagine being in a hole for that entire time. The stresses these men are under are enormous, and threaten to get worse every day.
Various news outlets have reported on the menu items that the miners will be eating, which has led us to wonder about their diet and how it might address their extraordinary plight. Will the dietary choices being made for these Chilean miners contribute to a better outcome for them?
To find out, we consulted with Manuel Villacorta, a registered dietitian (RD), owner of EatingFree.com, and a national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
According to Villacorta, the Chilean miners' bodies are likely in a hypermetabolic state; the stress of life in the hole is forcing an increase in the release of stress hormones that boost respiration and heart rate. These stress hormones also pull sugar from cells and make it available in the blood and muscles so that a person can respond to the threatening situation around them. This expends a lot of energy, meaning that other systems in the body are getting shortchanged digestion, which may lead to a loss of appetite or an immune response, leaving the miners more vulnerable to infection and illness.
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The Perfect Diet
It is, therefore, little surprise to Villacorta that the menu, approved by the Chilean Department of Health, would address this heightened state of stress. This diet is not about providing these guys with all the right vitamins and minerals; instead, the protein and carbohydrate content reminds Villacorta of what you see in the rations of a soldier at war -- a startling analogy that illustrates just how stressful the lives of these Chilean miners are.
Dietary response: Menu items such as meat stew with pasta salad, stroganoff with pasta primavera and shredded beef or chicken in sauce, as well as caramel spread and honey, provide good sources of protein and simple carbohydrates. Additionally, the menu is not without a psychological component in the manner of comfort food. A stressed miner, depressed and with a decreased appetite, could be inspired to eat if the item has some psychological impact. Originally from Peru, Villacorta said that just such an item on the miners' menu is mote con huesillos, a native Chilean sweet drink made with peaches and wheat.
The Unending Night
In an effort to uphold a sense of normalcy, officials are keen to make sure the Chilean miners are exposed to artificial light for a certain amount of time each day before they go to sleep. Villacorta points out that maintaining these circadian rhythms is crucial for upholding mental health and staving off stress and depression. This isn't so easy when you're going without sunlight, which presents the additional health risk of developing vitamin D deficiency, the symptoms of which include depression and chronic fatigue.
Dietary response: Juices and fortified yogurts, given at snack times, provide the necessary vitamin D to prevent deficiency.
Recall that the hole's temperature is believed to hover around 85 F at all times. Even though the men are currently rather inactive, their bodies are working very hard to keep cool, meaning that they are sweating a lot, and burning a lot of calories in the process. Not only that, but the heat can also become increasingly uncomfortable, again raising stress levels, reducing energy levels and possibly causing appetite loss.
In the coming months, if you can believe it, this will change when the men will be put to work around the clock. When the estimated 4,000 metric tons of rock start to rain down the escape hatch, the men will have to clear it, which is work that will require a lot more energy to perform.
In these situations, rehydrating isn't as simple as drinking water because by sweating the men are losing sodium, which helps maintain blood pressure and fluid balance in the body. According to Villacorta, a potentially life-threatening condition called hyponatremia becomes a concern because such low sodium levels can trigger something as serious as a heart attack.
Dietary response: The miners are getting between 2,000 and 2,400 calories per day, distributed across five meal times: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two snacks in between the meals. The distribution prevents them from devouring too much in one sitting only to have their bodies shut down on them. They are also each receiving more than a gallon of water per day to help with hydration and body temperature, but the sodium is likely being replaced by nutritional supplements.
World Record Nutrition
The Chilean miners' diet seems to be part of a broad design to try to bring some balance to their lives, and it's a great reminder that our bodies are governed, like everything else, by the laws of conservation: strict equations that can't be violated, no matter how hard we try. We can't allow our lives to get progressively more stressful without matching loss for loss and gain for gain, an equation that insists on balance in order to be successful.