In 2019, there was talk about the US Military making the keto diet mandatory for enlisted personnel in all service branches. The idea came from a Special Operations Command (SOCOM) proposal, believing that it would benefit soldiers due to its high-fat and low-carb focus. The proposal insisted the diet would help soldiers, especially SOCOM units, stay underwater for a longer time.
The move was met with mixed reactions from the government and the public, as the top brass lacks the authority to order their men what they can and can not eat. Furthermore, as the keto diet’s a relatively new fad, this still requires further study to be sure of its effectiveness. Nevertheless, the military has been showing keen interest in this approach to fitness over the years.
It comes at a time when three out of ten recruits get rejected because of their unhealthy weight. In a way, obesity is putting the country’s security at risk. With that said, can the keto diet really build the consummate American soldier?
High Fat, Low Carb
A ketogenic or keto diet plan involves fat making up 70% to 80% of your daily calorie intake. The idea is to force your body to achieve ketosis, where a lack of carbs induces the body to burn its fat stores. According to the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, continuous low-carb intake can trigger ketosis after three to four days.
Despite picking up steam since the 1970s, the diet has been in use since the early 20th century for treating diabetes and epilepsy. The success of other low-carb diets like the protein-rich Atkins diet helped more people become aware of keto.
Some who are undergoing keto are even adding their own nutritional secret into their regimen, like dietary supplements. The diet requires the intake of anything but fat to be limited, lest risk hampering with ketosis. With a controlled intake of protein and other nutrients, ketosis can be maintained.
Stay Underwater Longer
In a conference in Florida in 2020, Lisa Sanders, SOCOM Director of Science and Technology, said that the keto diet alters the body’s mechanism for dealing with a lack of oxygen. Doctors can confirm this, as it may mitigate carbon dioxide build-up and could help the body breathe 30% less. However, they said a 15% reduction is more than enough for most underwater operations.
Keto has also shown promise in extending diving time among divers breathing Enriched Air Nitrox (EAN), which has higher oxygen content than standard scuba air. Researchers from Italy studied six overweight divers and found that a weeklong keto diet reduced oxidative cell damage, common in EAN diving, due to increased oxygen levels.
It would make sense for SOCOM to promote keto, given that underwater operations are a dime a dozen. However, water training is an integral component in all service branches and even among Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadets in universities. The Combat Water Survival Test, for instance, has the cadets carry equipment while underwater or trying to swim back to safety.
A Few Caveats
Keto has been promising so far, not only for losing weight but for operating underwater for a prolonged period. But like any new diet trend, it comes with several caveats.
Danielle Dunnagan of the Eisenhower Army Medical Centre says the practicality of going keto is still up in the air; the military should be in no rush to adopt it. For one, maintaining ketosis is more complicated than what media and popular culture advertise. It does not take many carbs or protein to end ketosis and derail your entire fitness plan.
Furthermore, the only areas where keto has proven effective are managing diabetes and epilepsy, which has been doing so for decades. Dunnagan believes that science still needs to do more research into its weight loss and antioxidant potential before it can be widely accepted.
If you still plan on going keto despite all this, it will entail a lot of planning and sacrifice. Your meals will, as mentioned earlier, need to be rich in fat and low on everything else. In most cases, you will have to avoid carb-rich and sugary foods like root crops and certain fruits for as long as you need to maintain ketosis.
There is mounting evidence that the keto diet can improve soldiers’ readiness in different combat scenarios, though still not enough for widespread adoption. It pays to exercise caution when following a fitness plan that still has a lot of unanswered questions. Consult a medical professional if you think the keto diet will be suitable to your fitness goals, whether or not you are thinking of enlisting.