During long-duration space flights, astronauts often don’t eat as much
as they should, which can cause weight loss and other nutritional
concerns, such as low levels of vitamin D. A study released today of
astronauts who lived aboard the Russian space station Mir, and
counterparts living in seclusion on Earth, has validated a tool for
measuring astronauts’ dietary intake during long space flights.

“We have developed a program that helps us ensure that crewmembers go to
space with an optimal nutritional status, and that we do everything we
can to help them remain healthy while they are there,” said Dr. Scott M.
Smith, lead author on the paper and a nutritionist in the Life Sciences
Research Laboratories at the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston,

“When you are going to spend a few months in space, it’s important to be
sure you meet your body’s nutritional needs,” Smith said. One nutrient
of particular concern during long-duration space flights is vitamin D,
which is important for bone health. The lack of ultraviolet light due to
spacecraft shielding takes away the body’s ability to produce this
vitamin naturally during space flight. “This is just one example of why
food becomes even more important during long space flights,” Smith

The study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, focused on two NASA
astronauts who each spent more than four months aboard Mir. They were
compared to two groups of men and women who lived in a semi-closed
chamber at JSC for 60 and 91 days, respectively. Blood and urine were
collected from the astronauts both before and after their flights, and
from the chamber groups before, during and after their chamber stays.
These samples were used to measure the amounts of nutrients present,
including proteins, vitamins and minerals. A specially designed
questionnaire to monitor food consumption also was completed on a
regular basis by all the participants. Finally, each participant’s body
mass was measured at various times throughout the study to look for
weight loss or gain.

“These studies provided scientific data validating the space flight Food
Frequency Questionnaire,” Smith said. “That questionnaire is now part of
a comprehensive nutrition program designed to help ensure the health of
long-duration astronauts.”

Smith and his team of researchers are continuing this study with crews
aboard the International Space Station. Like the Mir astronauts and
chamber participants, the station crews receive a comprehensive
assessment of their nutritional status before and after flight, and
complete the computerized Food Frequency Questionnaire while in space.

“This unique software program allows crewmembers to relay food intake
information to the ground,” Smith said. “It takes only five to ten
minutes per week to complete, and it provides us with very important
real-time information. When necessary, recommendations can be made for
the crew to adjust their dietary intake while on orbit.”

“These studies will help ensure the health and safety of the astronauts
working aboard the International Space Station,” Smith added. “They also
will provide a better understanding of how the body’s nutritional needs
change during prolonged weightlessness, and will further our knowledge
about nutrition on Earth.”