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Science in Space: Week of Aug. 18, 2023 – The Space Diet

Crew members aboard the International Space Station conducted a variety of scientific investigations during the week ending Aug. 18, 2023, including tracking food intake and collecting biological samples for Food Physiology.

Spaceflight is known to affect the immune system, which could increase health risks for astronauts on future missions. This ongoing investigation began in March 2019 and characterizes how an enhanced spaceflight diet affects immune function, the gut microbiome, and nutritional status. Because diet can be easily and meaningfully altered on Earth and during flight, dietary improvements offer a way to enhance human adaptation to spaceflight.

Image of NASA astronaut Raja Chari looking toward the camera as his hands manipulate objects in a portable glove bag for the Food Physiology investigation.
NASA astronaut Raja Chari conducts operations for the Food Physiology investigation.
Credits: NASA

Researchers consult with participating astronauts before their mission to create the enhanced diet, which generally includes more diverse foods rich in bioactive compounds such as flavonoids, lycopene, and omega-3 fatty acids. Food sent on long space voyages must be shelf stable for multiple years at room temperature, but a variety of options are possible, such as freeze-dried butternut squash or fish with mango salsa.

Results from the Food Physiology investigation could help define targeted, efficient dietary interventions to maintain crew health and performance and guide development of the food system requirements to support these interventions. This investigation also is expected to contribute to general understanding of how complex organisms adapt to spaceflight.

Image of JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide looking toward the camera as he uses his right hand to hold an absorbent pad on his extended left arm. His right hand also holds several vials of blood from the blood draw that he has just completed.
JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide finishes a blood draw for the Pro K investigation.
Credits: NASA

Other investigations on the orbiting lab have contributed to efforts to provide the optimal diet for crew members. NASA’s Pro K investigation, which ran from 2009 to 2015,  examined whether a diet with a decreased ratio of animal protein to potassium (K) reduced the loss of bone mineral in astronauts. Results showed that increasing vegetable and fruit intake may help protect against loss of bone mineral when adequate calcium is consumed.

The Nutrition investigation examined bone metabolism, oxidative damage, hormonal changes, and nutritional status in those participating in long-duration space flight from 2006 to 2013. The findings from that study included an association between higher consumption of fish (a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids) and reduced loss of bone mineral density after flight and confirmation that bone loss, vitamin D status, and oxidative damage are critical nutritional concerns for long duration space missions. The research also revealed spaceflight-related changes in kidney function, immune system regulation, and bone resorption (the breakdown and reabsorption of bone material)

Image of NASA astronaut Sunita Williams looking toward the camera and smiling as her hands are on the keyboard of a laptop computer attached via Velcro to a flat surface connected to a rack on the Space Station.
NASA astronaut Sunita Williams enters sample data for the Nutrition investigation.
Credits: NASA

Biochem Profile tested blood and urine samples from astronauts before, during and after spaceflight for specific proteins and chemicals used as biomarkers, or indicators of health. This study demonstrated that biomedical countermeasures, including improved exercise and nutrition, positively influenced changes in immune function associated with spaceflight. Researchers created a database of samples and test results available to others studying the effects of spaceflight on the body.

For the ongoing ESA (European Space Agency) Energy investigation, scientists measured metabolic rate and other parameters to calculate the energy requirements for longer spaceflight and determine the amount and types of food that crews need. The research showed that physical activity affected energy expenditure, body mass, and body composition, with significant variation among individuals.

These investigations are part of ongoing efforts to determine the methods and technologies for future exploration missions to the Moon and Mars, including the design of food systems and measures to counteract the effects of spaceflight. Insights into how diet affects overall health have significant scientific and medical applications for people on Earth as well.

John Love, ISS Research Planning Integration Scientist
Expedition 69



Last Updated
Aug 29, 2023
Carrie Gilder