Guys’ night out could be put on standby for underwater specialists like the SEALs — well, unless that night involves an endless salad bar (no croutons, thank you).
A study conducted at Ohio State University has led the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to propose a complete dietary change for the Navy SEALs. It could expand to other Special Operations forces and maybe even the military at large.
The study was conducted on Army ROTC cadets at OSU. The conclusion was that their military performance improved when they changed to the widely popular, but controversial keto diet.
“One of the effects of truly being in ketosis is that it changes the way your body handles oxygen deprivation, so you can actually stay underwater at depths for longer periods of time and not go into oxygen seizures,” said Lisa Sanders, the director of science and technology at SOCOM.
We’re going to take a look at what exactly the keto diet is; what can you eat, what can’t you eat, and how does it affect your body?
More importantly: is SOCOM placing soldiers’ performance levels above their health?
The keto diet: what is it?
The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet that was originally used to treat children’s epilepsy. More recently, it’s become a diet that’s swept the nation. Here’s a simple breakdown of how it works:
If you’re not eating carbs, your body will instead attack fat cells for energy. This can result in weight loss. It can also change how your brain functions, reducing epileptic seizures and the oxygen seizures that happen when you’re underwater too long.
Here’s a more detailed explanation:
When you eat, the carbohydrates in your food are then converted to glucose. The glucose is transported around your body to give you energy, and plays a particularly important role in brain function.
However, the keto diet is all about restricting your carb intake. So instead of using carbs to get energy, your liver will convert fat into fatty acids and ketone bodies. The ketone bodies then go into your brain and replace glucose as an energy source.
This conversion of fat is why many people adopt the keto diet to lose weight more quickly. The reason that the military is interested in the keto diet is because of what ketone bodies do to you.
When you have a higher level of ketone bodies in your blood, you go into a state known as ketosis. This leads to a reduction of epileptic seizures, and – as Lisa Sanders said – could also lead to greater underwater capabilities for soldiers.
What can you eat on the keto diet?
People have long been cutting out carbs to drop a couple pounds. It’s nothing revolutionary, and oftentimes “dieting” is more of a temporary change than a lifestyle adaptation.
So you can see why a forced, low-carb diet might be intimidating for the average E-1, or even a Navy SEAL. What exactly can you eat on the keto diet, anyway?
Well, here are some of the basics:
- Seafood, like fish and shellfish
- Low-carb veggies (no, not potatoes – think green like kale or broccoli)
- Fresh meat and poultry
- Plain Greek yogurt
- Nuts and seeds
- Butter and cream
- Shirataki noodles, or zucchini noodles
- Coffee and tea (no sweetener)
- Dark chocolate and cocoa powder
- Some alcohol, like hard liquor or dry wine
All of these food items contain little to no carbohydrates, and many are high in natural fats.
What can’t you eat?
If the above food list made you optimistic, this one might leave you feeling lackluster.
Here’s what you can’t eat:
- Pretty much all fruit
- Grains and starches (no oatmeal, rice, or corn)
- Grain products like bread, pasta, cereal, pizza, etc.
- Root veggies like potatoes, carrots, and beets
- Sweeteners (sugar, honey, syrup)
- Most candy-like sweets
- Beer and sweetened alcoholic drinks
- Sweetened drinks like smoothies and soda
- Sweetened sauces and dips – so, most of them
The keto diet definitely isn’t the easiest to adhere to. In fact, going out to eat might feel more like a chore than anything. As many vegans or extreme-dieters can attest, you’ll have to get creative with meal planning and restaurants.
Is the keto diet good for you?
If the military approves the change to the keto diet, it would be on the basis of how it affects military performance — specifically, underwater performance. But is the keto diet actually good for you?
It might not feel like it in the beginning. An extremely common side effect of the keto diet is something called the “keto flu” that happens the first week you are on the diet. As you can probably surmise from the title, it feels a lot like the flu.
“With the start of the keto diet, the body switches from using sugar as a source of energy to using the body’s stored fat,” explained Dr. Nancy P. Rahnama in this Healthline article. Rahnama is a bariatric and internal medicine doctor practicing in California.
“In the process of breaking down fat, the body produces ketones, which are then removed by the body through frequent and increased urination. This may lead to dehydration and flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue, dizziness, irritability, nausea, and muscle soreness.”
Rahnama further explains that, without carbohydrates, you may experience withdrawal symptoms like brain fog and trouble concentrating. Additionally, the increased urination will deprive you of electrolytes and make your symptoms worse.
Not the best way to start a diet. But, much like any other change, your body will eventually adapt. So what happens after you’re over the keto flu?
Is it good for you long-term?
There’s no real agreement on whether or not the keto diet is good for you. Like most diets, it depends on the individual and how their body reacts to it.
However, many experts agree that the keto diet should be used as a temporary way to lose weight, and not a permanent lifestyle.
“Keto is not a great long-term diet, as it is not a balanced diet,” Rahnama said. “A diet that is devoid of fruit and vegetables will result in long-term micronutrient deficiencies that can have other consequences.”
These consequences can include increased risk of osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and cancer. The keto diet is also linked to other negative side effects, like:
- Bad breath
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Decreased bone density
- Sleep issues
Like any restrictive diet, you have to work twice as hard than you would normally to get the proper nutrition. If you’re not careful, it could lead to a whole host of long-term health issues.
Keto diet in the military
While it may have some interesting effects on military performance, the keto diet is simply not balanced or healthy enough for our service members. Making them stick to a strict diet, and even take daily blood or urine tests to prove it, is a sure-fire way to reduce morale and re-enlistment.
It’s also a pretty big burden for the military to carry; there would have to be a complete overhaul of DFACs and MREs all over the world in order to follow the many restrictions of the keto diet.
Not to mention the overhaul that would have to happen at home — and the many (probably hangry) military spouses who will certainly protest this policy.
Overall: leave the fancy fad diets to the civilians, and stick with what you know.