America’s armed forces are fighting — over food.
A study published in June in the journal Military Medicine suggested that serving men and women should adopt the keto diet — the trendy high-fat, low-carb plan — as a means of combating obesity and boosting troops’ performance.
But some find the new research hard to swallow.
Earlier this month, Patricia Deuster, a professor at Uniformed Services University and director of its Consortium for Health and Military Performance, sent a strongly worded letter to the editor debunking the military diet research.
“We found numerous flaws in that paper,” Deuster tells The Post. “It wasn’t done on a true military population.”
And, she says, there are other issues. “We don’t know what the long-term consequences of the keto diet are on the microbiome. How would they enforce this kind of diet?”
This keto kerfuffle is the latest battle in the ongoing war over what the armed forces should be eating for optimal mental and physical performance.
The concerns, military experts say, are weighty: A report from last year found that one-third of America’s 17- to 24-year-olds are too overweight to qualify for service, which hurts recruitment. Within the Army, 17 percent of soldiers are classified as obese, according to the Army’s 2018 Health of the Force report.
To combat the creep of obesity, the military has spent much of the past decade cleaning up the troops’ diets.
Fried foods, for example, are no longer served in chow halls, salad bars have become more prominent, and some troops’ cafeteria offerings are color-coded (green: have your fill; yellow: eat with caution; red: nibble sparingly).
But now, experts are divided as to whether drastically curtailing carbs — a key tenet of the keto diet — is good for men and women in uniform.
Deuster, who has been working with military populations since 1984, says she and her colleagues have been studying the ketogenic diet since the ’90s and found that the plan is not suitable for the armed forces.
“It didn’t pan out then and it doesn’t now, either,” says Deuster, who wrote the 1994 tome “The Navy SEAL Nutrition Guide.”
Serving in the military requires high levels of both endurance (aerobic) activities, such as running and swimming, and shorter, explosive (anaerobic) movements, such as sprinting and weightlifting. But being in ketosis — a metabolic state where the body burns fat because it has limited access to glucose (blood sugar) — may prevent one from doing anaerobic feats well, according to Rachele Pojednic, an assistant professor of nutrition at Simmons University in Boston.
Anaerobic exercise “uses glucose exclusively,” she tells The Post. “Things like jumping and sprinting are incredibly important in the military, and without glucose, you’re going to be slow and terrible at it.”
The senior author of June’s keto study, Jeff Volek, a professor in the department of human science at Ohio State University, isn’t sold on that science. While he concedes “that [it] is the prevailing wisdom” at the moment, he and his team have recently found that being in a true ketosis state may not impact anaerobic performance.
“[Study subjects] experienced the same gains in strength and power but at a lower body weight,” Volek, who has been researching the keto diet for a decade, tells The Post. “Our data showing this is currently being peer reviewed for publication.”
The modern military diet follows Army Regulation 40-25, an unclassified document that dictates what service members should consume in dining halls around the world and through in-the-field rations called Meals, Ready-to-Eat, more commonly known as MREs. It essentially adheres to the US Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, with a caveat: Those in the armed forces are “doing way more exercise and so they need more calories and nutrients,” says Deuster.
Marine veteran and Congressman Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) doesn’t recall the chow-hall food he enjoyed adhering to any special military diet plans.
‘I remember thinking that if anyone should be eating healthy, it was us.’
– Marine veteran and Congressman Seth Moulton (D-Mass.)
“The majority of the food we had was the kind of stuff you get at fast food restaurants: burgers, french fries, pizza, mac ’n’ cheese,” says Moulton, 40, who served from 2002 to 2008 and is currently running for the Democratic nomination for president. “I remember thinking that if anyone should be eating healthy, it was us.”
Deuster says that the military has been moving toward a healthier lifestyle for the past 10 years, including pivoting to more plant-based options. A typical meal today could include broiled or baked chicken, salad, rice and vegetables. But even she admits that the changes have been slow.
“It’s an evolution, not a revolution,” she says. “But there is a much bigger focus now on healthy eating.”
Fang Wong has seen the evolution firsthand. A Vietnam vet who was in the Army from 1969 to 1989, he’s now in the American Legion and regularly visits with troops. He’s amazed at their current food options.
“It’s totally different from when I served,” Wong says. “They advertise calories and nutrients on signs. They have multiple options, a short-order line, sandwiches, salads. There’s more variety, and it appears to be much healthier.”
By contrast, he recalls mystery meat in the Vietnam mess hall.
“Nobody knew what kind of meat it was,” he says. “We used to joke and hope it wasn’t the water buffalo we’d see outside.