MREs are an excellent survival food. They are packed with enough calories and nutrition to fuel the United States Armed Forces, so are more than capable of keeping a few survivalists alive.
The average military MRE contains 1,250 calories, including approximately 36% fat, 51% carbohydrates, and 13% protein. (source)
An average civilian MRE meal contains approximately 1,200 calories.
Therefore, the average person could survive on just one MRE daily, but they probably wouldn’t prosper on it. The military recommends that soldiers eat three MREs a day – the equivalent of 3,777 calories per day.
Soldiers need a lot of calories because they exert a lot of energy. According to one military source, soldiers enlisting in the army’s premier leadership training school, known as Ranger School, could expend up to 10,000 calories in a single day!
The average survivalist is unlikely to burn that many calories but will burn more than they would sitting at home watching Netflix.
Do MREs Contain Enough Calories to Keep Us Alive?
We explored how many calories you need to survive in an emergency in an earlier article, but you can also calculate how many calories you need per day using the Harris-Benedict formula. This formula takes your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and multiplies it by your average daily activity level.
That means you first need to calculate your BMR using the following formulae:
- Men: 66 + (6.2 x weight in lbs) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.76 x age)
- Women: 655.1 + (4.35 x weight) + (4.7 x height) – (4.7 x age)
Let’s say you’re a 42-year-old, 6-foot-tall, who weighs 178 lb, which means your BMR is:
66 + (6.2 x 178) + (12.7 x 72) – (6.76 x 42)
66 + 1103.6 + 914.4 – 283.92 = 1800
Once you have this figure, you can calculate your daily calorie needs by adding on points for activity.
If you’re doing little or no exercise, multiply your BMR by just 1.2. In a survival situation, you’ll probably be at least moderately active, earning yourself 1.55 points.
If you’re building a shelter and chopping wood for hours at a time, however, you’ll be considered very active and need to multiply your BMR by around 1.725 to 1.9.
Assuming our mythical six-foot man is working hard to secure his future, we’ll award him 1.725 activity points, making his daily calorie requirement 1800 x 1.725. That means he requires 3,105 calories daily, or the equivalent of two and a half MREs.
Jumping to such conclusions could be dangerous, however. Although the average MRE contains around 1250 calories, that doesn’t mean they all do.
Some MREs from Sopakco contain just 1,058 calories, while those from Wornick Eversafe contain more than the average civilian MRE, with around 1,265 calories per serving.
A Nutritional Comparison of Military vs Civilian MREs
Staying healthy isn’t just about getting the correct number of calories; it’s also about balance. The standard MRE contains the following edible items:
- Cracker or Bread
Of these, the entree is the main meal, providing most of the calories, protein, carbohydrates, and dietary fiber.
Using chili with beans as an example, you can see that the military version is more calorific than the civilian portion:
|Nutritional Content||Military Chilli with Beans||Civilian Chilli with Beans|
The military version also contains more protein, which the body needs to rebuild cells and body tissues and coordinate the body’s functions.
Protein should make up between 10% and 35% of your daily calorie intake, so a 290-calorie meal should ideally contain between 29 and 101.5 calories of protein. If there are four calories for every gram of protein, the protein content of this military MRE should be between 7.25g and 25.38g.
Carbohydrates are also crucial as they are your body’s main source of energy and, as such, should form 45% to 65% of your total daily calories.
According to the Mayo Clinic,
“if you get 2,000 calories a day, between 900 and 1,300 calories should be from carbohydrates. That translates to between 225 and 325 grams of carbs a day.”
Based on that formula, the civilian MRE of chili with beans should contain between 117 and 169 calories of carbohydrates – the equivalent of 29.25 and 42.25 grams.
As you can see, both the military and civilian MREs meet our daily needs for protein and cholesterol. On the downside, they also both contain very high levels of sodium.
The American Heart Association recommends eating no more than 1,500 mg of salt, or sodium, per day. If you were to eat three military MREs of chili with beans in a day, you’d be getting 1,983 mg of sodium – far exceeding the American Heart Association’s recommendations. The sodium levels in the civilian MRE are better but still bring you dangerously close to that 1,500 mg mark.
Eating too much sodium can increase your blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart failure, kidney disease, strokes, and heart disease.
What are the Most Calorific MREs?
A study of over 100 different military and civilian MREs found that different entrees had significantly different calorie contents. Some entrees contain just 140 calories, while others managed to pack 480 calories into a single serving.
If you’re eating MREs but not exercising, you want to find those that are low in fat and carbohydrates, which are often vegan or vegetarian options.
Sopakco’s reduced-sodium MREs are some of the cheapest MREs you can find and some of the most healthy. Many of the options are vegetarian and contain fewer calories than other types of MREs, averaging between 650-1,060 calories per meal.
At the other end of the scale, this UK company is selling freeze-dried meals that contain a whopping 2,400 calories!
Military MREs vary in calorie content a lot less. According to the statistics published on the Combat Rations Database, the lowest calorie option for soldiers is beef stew at 1,195 calories per serving, while the highest is, surprisingly, tuna at 1,389.
Will I Gain Weight Eating MREs?
While soldiers are so active, they usually lose weight on MREs; the same can’t be said for all civilians. If you calculated your calorie consumption to be around 1,200 calories a day and you don’t increase the amount of energy you’re expending, you will gain weight by eating three MREs a day.
If, on the other hand, you’re hiking uphill for 30 km, you’ll easily burn 3,000 calories and will probably lose weight even if you’re eating three MREs a day.
MREs are designed to provide military personnel with a self-contained meal that gives them all the nutrition they would get from an ordinary meal. As a result, they tend to all contain the same amount of calories, averaging 1250 per serving.
Civilian MREs vary much more widely, especially the entrees. You can find entrees with less than 150 calories and others with close to 500. Similarly, complete meals may contain as few as 650 calories and others as many as 2,400!
MREs aren’t particularly beneficial for your health or your bank balance, but they will provide the fuel you need to survive up to 21 days in the wilderness.