E-News Exclusive

Nutrition Down Under — RD Assesses How the Chilean Miners Met Their Nutritional Needs While Trapped
By Lindsey Getz

After being trapped underground for nearly two months, all 33 Chilean miners were finally brought to safety on October 13. One by one, the men were shuttled upward through a specially designed steel capsule, receiving a hero’s welcome upon surfacing. Today, people continue to applaud the miners wherever they go. Certainly the men went through quite an ordeal to survive their confinement, which raised interest among dietitians concerning how they met their nutritional needs. Many believe the miners’ strategic diet played a role in their overall health and survival.

Manuel Villacorta, RD, owner of EatingFree.com and an American Dietetic Association spokesperson, says the items on the miners’ menu were a response to the stressful state their bodies were under—similar to the foods that soldiers at war eat. The miners’ diet included foods rich in protein and carbohydrates, such as stroganoff with pasta primavera and meat-stuffed cabbage. NASA was brought in to consult on the diet, pulling from its expertise in supporting astronauts. The Chilean Ministry of Health approved the menu items before they were sent down to the men in a special 4-inch tube, traveling 2,300 ft below the earth’s surface.

One of the key components that Villacorta, originally from Peru, noticed about the miners’ diet was the number of comfort foods included. Even a traditional sugary Chilean drink known as mote con huesillos was on the menu. The comfort foods were important not only from a psychological standpoint, as they offered the men a taste of home, but also because they provided some very necessary calories. Villacorta estimates that the miners probably needed between 2,000 and 2,500 kcal/day, and he believes the miners’ diet fulfilled that requirement. One traditional Chilean food absent from the menu was beans. Although many Chilean dishes feature beans, the medics who advised on the men’s health believed that any food that could cause intestinal gas would make living in the confined space only more unpleasant.

“It was very hot down in the mines, and that can make someone not want to eat,” says Villacorta. “But it was important that they kept their calorie intake steady and their energy up because they were still working. That made the comfort food important. It was a diet that they could be persuaded to eat.”

The main reason the miners continued to work was for sanity’s sake. Recommendations indicated that they keep to a schedule so that they weren’t idly waiting for rescue. “Sitting around would only lead to more stress,” says Villacorta. “Instead, it was advised that they have a routine each day. So they had a wake-up time, work time, a break for lunch—basically they ran the whole day like it was a normal one. It would be unbearable to just sit around in the dark.”

Doing laborious work and living in the hot, humid environment also sparked dehydration concerns. “Sweating from not only the heat but also the work made dehydration a big [worry],” says Villacorta. “So getting enough fluids and electrolytes was something taken into consideration. The miners likely got a lot of shakes that probably had vitamins and electrolytes added in.” About 5 liters of water per man was also delivered below the earth each day.

Due to the lack of sunlight the miners experienced underground, vitamin D deficiency was another concern. As a result, juices and fortified yogurts were delivered to help bolster the men’s vitamin D levels.

As rescue day approached, the miners began some special exercises designed to help prevent health issues during the rescue. Officials were concerned about the physical toll the rescue effort itself could have on the miners as they took the claustrophobic ride through the rock in a steel tube only 24 inches wide. In addition to exercises, the miners took saltwater supplements and aspirin to help prevent hypertension, thrombosis, or other potential stress-related conditions from occurring during the rescue.

Critical to the rescue mission’s success was that all 33 men were in good condition. While they were battling skin problems from the humidity and some were taking antibiotics for potential dental infections, overall the men were in good health both physically and mentally.

“You could see when they came out that they looked pretty good considering the circumstances they’d been under,” says Villacorta. “They looked fit and pretty healthy.”

Villacorta says the men’s good health and diligence in maintaining the prescribed diet and routine was critical. And because the miners did adhere to the recommendations presented to them, Villacorta does not expect they will face nutritional issues down the road as a result of their entrapment. A healthful diet, even during this catastrophe, certainly played a vital role in the men’s long-term health.

Overall, Villacorta says he was pleased with how officials handled the miners’ nutritional needs. “If I were in charge of their diet, I would have done something along the same lines,” he says. “What they were given made nutritional sense.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pa.