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Feeding the Chilean miners

Updated Tuesday, 21st September 2010

What would the Chilean miners have been given to eat when they were trapped? Audrey Brown, a science tutor at the Open University, provides an insight.

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According to the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), a balanced diet should include about one-third fruit and vegetables and one-third bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods (carbohydrates). The remaining third of the diet should be made up of about equal quantities of meat, fish, eggs and beans (sources of protein) and of milk and dairy foods, with ideally only a small amount of foods and drinks that are high in fat and/or sugar. This is illustrated in the FSA’s eatwell plate.

Food Standards Eatwell plate Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Food Standards Agency

The 33 miners were able to use a small cache of food to survive for more than two weeks until the first borehole reached them. This borehole included some protein, in the form of tuna, and some milk. However, the biscuits, though containing starch, are likely to be high in fat and maybe sugar too, if they were sweet biscuits. So nutritionally they were not ideal, but they will have provided much-needed energy for the trapped miners.

Digestive system

Crucially, however, this diet was missing fruit or vegetables.  Fruit and vegetables provide some very important additions to the diet; namely roughage, vitamins and minerals. Roughage (or dietary fibre) is important for increasing the bulk of the contents of the digestive system so that food moves along faster. In the short term, this prevents constipation; in the long term, it appears to have other beneficial effects in protecting against bowel cancer, for example. Because the miners had had almost no dietary fibre from the food stored in the shelter, when they did first receive food, it will need to have been low in fibre to enable their digestive systems to slowly get used to a more normal diet.

As well as not having enough roughage, the amount of food in the cache would have provided insufficient energy and almost certainly very few vitamins. So the first nourishment provided would have needed to include vitamin tablets and be high in energy. Due to the high temperatures in the shelter – 32 to 34 degrees Celsius – the miners should have been taking in up to four litres of water per day, mainly to replace that lost through sweating. Since very little liquid was available prior to the borehole reaching them, the miners would have become severely dehydrated as the days went by and, had they not been reached, it is this, rather than lack of food, that would eventually have been fatal. So early drops down the borehole would have needed to include water for rehydration and appropriate salts to replace those lost in sweat.

Enjoyment of eating

Fish and chips

After the initial period of getting their condition stabilised, the miners, who could be there for some months, would have been provided with a more normal diet. Food is important not only for physiological reasons to keep the body healthy, but for psychological reasons too. Eating is generally a pleasurable activity, with the anticipation of a good meal, and then the smell and taste causing the mouth to water (when extra saliva is produced in anticipation of chewing and swallowing the food). Meal times also break up the day and can be beneficial as a social activity. It would be easy just to send lots of high protein, high energy food, with added vitamins and minerals, packaged into bars to the miners. They could eat these when they wanted, but then the other pleasurable aspects of eating would be lost. In addition, people eat less if they are given the same food all the time and their diet isn’t varied. Most of us will have experienced the sensation of not being able to eat another mouthful of the main meal on our plate, but then when dessert if offered, we suddenly find we can manage a portion after all. So the miners are likely to eat more and enjoy their food more if they eat together at regular times each day, and eat a varied diet.

Body weight constant

Credit Crash Britain fruit food fight rhs Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: photos.com

Of course, it was important not to feed them too well, and cause them to put on too much weight, since when the escape borehole is completed, the miners will have to squeeze into a small rescue pod to be hauled to the surface. To keep someone’s body weight constant, it is important that the amount of energy provided by the food per day is about the same as the amount of energy expended. During their normal working days, the miners would have been using up large amounts of energy and so would be used to eating plenty of food. Although an exercise regime has been arranged for them below ground, they will still be using up much less energy than normal. Fat provides more than twice as much energy per gram as does protein (meat, fish, etc.) or carbohydrate (potatoes, rice, pasta, etc.). So the meals provided to them below ground would need to have been low in fat and, to provide plenty of roughage, high in fibre.

The miners would have enjoyed their food more if provided with a diet similar to the one they would eat normally, with small changes if necessary to make sure that the essential nutrients are all included. An early meal provided to them included rice, meatballs, fruit, cheese and bread. This contains all the essential ingredients of a balanced diet according to the eatwell plate above. There is rice and bread from the starchy food section; fruit from the fruit and vegetables section; meat from the protein section; and cheese from the milk and dairy food section. Similarly, the Chilean dish poroto con rienda, which they were given on another occasion, is a dish of beans and pasta, with onions and other vegetables. Beans are a good source of protein and so this only lacks food from the dairy group - cheese or a milky drink would correct that. Of course, the meals provided to the miners needed to have been chosen so that they are equally appetising when lukewarm and are not ruined by their journey of about 600 metres from the surface. But however good the meals, the miners will undoubtedly be looking forward to eating normal meals now their rescue attempt has proved successful!

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