Training the Next Generation of Space Dietitians

By: Christina-Ariadni Valagkouti

“Space nutrition? I’ve never heard of that before!” I hear a variation of this quote almost every time I introduce myself. For both my dietitian community and my aerospace community it’s shocking that someone with an MSc in nutrition and health can find a job in the space industry. And yet, why not? Human spaceflight is associated with a plethora of physiological challenges, and nutrition can play an important role as countermeasure.

Nutrition as Spaceflight Countermeasure

One of the most prominent issues for an astronaut is the loss of muscle and bone tissue. In the absence of gravity, we don’t use our muscles as much, and the bones do not get the stimulation they need to stay strong. In the span of one month, an astronaut can lose as much bone tissue as an elderly person with osteoporosis loses in a year. The antidote to this is a lot of daily exercise, coupled with a trained dietitian’s support. With the proper nutritional regime, the muscle and the bones can stay strong, the recovery is fast, and the astronaut can cover their needs to keep up with all this exercising. 

That’s not where the power of nutrition stops. The environment of a space mission includes radiation, isolation, lack of sunlight, stress, and nostalgia, all of which affect negatively not only the astronaut themselves, but also the microorganisms that live in their gut. Digestive issues and lack of appetite can threaten the health of the astronauts and the success of the mission if left unchecked. A space dietitian would have to examine factors like motion sickness, hormonal changes, blood flow alterations, and the food itself, to understand the extent of their effect on each astronaut. The idea would be to provide a personalised solution, which would require a good understanding of human metabolism, and not only.

Space Dietitian Skillset

Any dietitian’s training includes thorough study of all systems of the human body, their interplay, and the diseases that can affect them. It also includes excellent understanding of cellular and sub-cellular mechanisms that have to do with energy production, a great deal of psychology, and in-depth examination of the interaction of the food components with the human body, with each other, and with their environment. While there are special programs to study aerospace medicine, there are currently no programs dedicated to space nutrition. Is the given dietitian training enough for a career in space nutrition?

Yes and no. Yes, because, after graduation, we are fully capable to study independently the unique effects that the space environment has on the human body. The rules are altered, for sure – the blood doesn’t flow like it does on earth, the hormones do not behave as usual, and metabolism does not always do what it is expected to do – but ultimately there are very logical explanations that occur from the scientific method, and the effects on the human body can be, to a degree, predicted. However, it is also not enough at the same time, because the progress that can be made in that way is limited. Each dietitian engaging in this has to basically reinvent the wheel, so there’s barely time for anything else. If we had the blueprints for the wheel, perhaps there would be time to build a car, to actually expand our understanding of the issues and their solutions.

The Food of the Future

Another shortcoming of the dietitian training is the food we work with. The solutions we are trained to provide have at their core mostly food items that can be bought at any store. This is not the case with space food: it has undergone special processing to become completely sterile and with extended shelf-life. Fresh fruits and vegetables are very hard to come by in a space mission, as are items with beneficial microorganisms and lots of fibre. Basically, most of the food we would ideally prompt people to eat more of in order to stay healthy is out of the equation. Plus, even if we offer a food of high nutritional value, there’s no guarantee that it has the same nutritional value in space: radiation and long storage can destroy some nutrients, and the disturbed intestine of an astronaut might not be able to absorb as much as it was expected.

And things are about to get weirder. So far, food can be sent to the ISS, but ways to become more independent of the Earth are being developed. Closed-loop systems might be able to grow vegetables on waste, but how close will their composition be to the ones we are already familiar with? In addition, since our usual protein source, cattle, is too impractical to include in a spaceflight, we will have to experiment with alternative protein sources: algae and other microorganisms, insects, lab-grown meat. These are all foods humans have not eaten extensively before, thus their safety and suitability for consumption has to be examined. A space dietitian would need to be familiar with these types of foods in order to offer the right guidance to an astronaut.

The Next Generation

The complex conditions encountered in human spaceflight call for interdisciplinary approaches. Space dietitians can have a great contribution to astronaut health and can really elevate the crew’s quality of life. So far, we might not have a dedicated MSc specialisation, but we have dedicated individuals who can support the activities of a space medicine team, and are eager to dive deep into the novel foods that will nourish future space exploration missions.

And as for the nutrition and health students? Whatever stereotypes you have heard about the space industry are outdated, and SGAC is a great proof of that. Competition and gatekeeping are making way for a diverse environment where collective victories are the goal and one can learn from another. There is a part that is still true, however: the space industry recruits high-performing individuals. However, there is no need to feel intimidated by that. If you love what you are doing, there’s no way you won’t be good enough at it.

This is a shortened version of a publication. September 2023.