An Army Marches On Its Stomach

An Army Marches On Its Stomach

Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the most famed military commanders and strategists in history. He rose to power during the French Revolution, eventually toppling the government to gain complete control of France, ultimately declaring himself as Emperor in 1804. He waged a successful campaign to conquer most of Europe, which was achieved by 1812. Bonaparte defied the odds multiple times to defeat enemy forces through stratagem and sheer determination. He earned a fearsome reputation and seemed unstoppable.

The beginning of the end for Bonaparte came in 1812, during the invasion of Russia. He marched with a force 600,000 soldiers strong, intending to crush the Russian force of 200,000 and force his enemies to sue for peace. The Russians abandoned their homes, fleeing deep into the interior. They burned their crops, buildings, and bridges to deny the French much needed sustenance and supplies. This was problematic for the French army, as it was typical for soldiers to find their own food through foraging and pillaging local villages. It was not uncommon for soldiers of this era to suffer from starvation and nutrition-related diseases during extended campaigns.  The French army suffered much during this war: they endured food deprivation, mass desertions, and disease; it is thought that around twice as many soldiers died from causes other than fighting. Less than 100,000 soldiers returned to Poland defeated.

The idiom “an army marches on its stomach” is ironically credited to Napoleon Bonaparte, however, his leadership demonstrated the consequence of ignoring this piece of wisdom. Bonaparte’s troops suffered from starvation, scurvy, malnutrition, dehydration, and death during multiple campaigns. The enemy that killed the most French troops was, in fact, Bonaparte’s own ill-preparedness.

Nutrition in Emergency Preparedness

Preparing an emergency food supply is much like feeding an army; the same nutrition principles apply whether you need to plan for 10,000 people or just your own household. We have the benefit of almost 100 years of modern nutrition science to aid in planning an emergency food supply. Proper planning can aid in the design of a standalone supply to ensure peak performance even when disaster strikes.

The most important thing to consider is if your food supply contains adequate amounts of all the essential nutrients. An essential nutrient is something that is necessary for the body to function that must be acquired through food. They can be divided into two main categories: macronutrients and micronutrients. We require macronutrients in large amounts. These include carbohydrates, fats, protein, and water. Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals. These are necessary for our cells to perform vital functions to keep us alive. A well-planned food supply has the right amount of all of these things to ensure peak performance and health.



Carbs have received a lot of negative attention in recent years: it will make you fat, it will cause diabetes/heart disease, i.e., carbs are evil. Nothing could be further from the truth! Carbohydrates have a very important part of the diet; in fact, over half of daily calories should come from carbs. That is not to say that the body treats all types of carbs equally—the truth is that some carbs are higher quality than others. Added sugars are low quality and should be limited—the negative media attention surrounding carbs apply to added sugars. Consuming excess sugars can cause weight gain and overall poor health. Sources of added sugars include sodas, energy drinks, some juices, candy, breakfast cereals, baked sweets, and other desserts. The recommendation is to limit added sugar intake to 10% of daily calories or less—for an average person that is the equivalent of 1 can of soda (50g)! Diets high in added sugars can lead to fatigue and low energy levels—not the goal of an emergency food supply. It would provide the bare minimum, but not much more.

In addition to limiting added sugars, refined grains should be replaced with whole grains. Grains have 3 main parts: the germ, bran, and endosperm. Refined grains are made when the germ and bran are removed during processing. This increases shelf life at the expense of nutritional quality. White bread and white rice are common examples. Whole grains contain all 3 parts of the grain (as the name implies). Identifying whole grains has become tricky—a package or label could have words like wheat, multi-grain, enriched, or grain—but that does not mean that it is made with whole grains! Whole grain products will be stated in the ingredients: e.g., whole wheat, whole rye, etc. Research on whole grains has shown that it is important for keeping a healthy weight, lowering risk of cancer, diabetes, and other conditions, and even improving energy levels!

In the context of a survival situation, refined grains vs whole grains is the difference between merely keeping yourself alive or thriving and performing at your best under harsh conditions. This should be a no brainer!


In recent memory (1970s-1990s), dietitians and doctors led a crusade of sorts against fat. It became the scapegoat for the rise in obesity and heart disease during this period. This led to an explosion in the diet world: low-fat foods became available everywhere and Americans generally accepted that a low-fat diet is healthy. However, like most things in nutrition, the truth is more complex. Like carbohydrates, not all types of fats can be treated equally; some are beneficial and some are harmful. Many unsaturated fats lower LDL cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. These are mostly found in plant-base oils. Saturated fats are what should be limited in most cases. These fats are mainly found in animal products and tropical oils. Saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol and contributes to several conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. A useful way to identify unsaturated vs saturated fat is to examine the fat at room temperature: a liquid state usually means that the fat is unsaturated while solid fats are saturated.

Despite the previous generation of medical professionals telling us to avoid fat, research has helped define the importance of fat in the diet. Up to 1/3 of total calories should come from fat, with most of that from unsaturated fats. Good sources of unsaturated fat can include avocados and vegetable oils (canola, olive, sunflower, etc). Red meat, lard, and tropical oils (palm oil, coconut oil, etc) should be limited.


Protein rightly has as a reputation for being a major building block and an important nutrient for repair. It is composed of amino acids, which are the specific compounds that provide the benefits we associate with protein. High quality protein is a necessary component of every emergency food supply, which is measured by the number of essential amino acids that it contains. A complete protein contains all 9 essential amino acids. These include all animal proteins and some plant proteins, such as soy and pea. Most other plant proteins are not complete, however, they are still important in the diet.

There is a myth in American culture that an excessive amount of protein is necessary, even healthy. While protein needs vary from individual to individual, most people in most situations only need a moderate amount of protein each day. It is simple to estimate your own protein needs; just divide your weight by 2.75. For example, an individual that weighs 175 lbs would need around 64 grams of protein daily.  Most Americans consume enough protein on a day-to-day basis. There are no benefits to consuming more protein that is needed daily; too much protein could even lead to digestive issues. While it is tempting to fill up your food supply with a large proportion of meat, it would actually be more nutritious and cost-effective to have a more balanced supply.


Vitamins and Minerals

Planning a food supply can start to become complicated when accounting for vitamins and minerals. There are 13 essential vitamins and 14 essential minerals—each with specific requirements. Long-term deficiencies in one of these may result in serious complications. History is full of these examples; many of Napoleon Bonaparte’s men died of scurvy, which is caused by vitamin C deficiency. Fruits and vegetables are great sources of micronutrients—eating at least 5 servings a day will provide most of what you need. If this sounds like a lot, you are not alone! 9 out of 10 Americans do not eat enough fruits and vegetables each day. It does take some planning to build a food supply with adequate fruits and vegetables. Dehydrated, canned, frozen (if you have access to electricity), and freeze-dried are all great options.

In addition to maintaining a good fruit and vegetable intake, fortified foods are also an option to help meet micronutrient needs. A fortified food is a product that has vitamins and minerals added to it to increase its nutritional value. Fortified foods such as breakfast cereals or Nutrient Survival™ products are also good options for a food supply.

What do I do?

Nutrition planning sounds complex, but it can actually be really simple. The USDA has developed an easy way to plan meals so that they are nutritionally adequate. Fruits and vegetables should make up around half of the meal in addition to a portion of a grain/starch and a protein. This simple pattern in combination with varying/rotating the different kinds of food you eat will go a long way in ensuring that your nutritional needs are met, avoiding dangerous problems that can arise from inadequate nutrition. Nutrition is certainly the biggest factor you could have control of in an emergency scenario. Planning your food supply with nutrition in mind is one of the best things you can do to prepare yourself for the unexpected!

About the author

Taylor Zappe is a master's graduate in nutrition from the University of Nevada, Reno, and an R&D Lead at Nutrient Survival. He enjoys hiking and camping with his family, having acquired a love of the outdoors at a young age. He is a strong believer in the power of nutrition in everyday life, having spent the last seven years applying nutrition principles in day-to-day meal planning and in outdoor excursions.