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The military is eyeing the advantages of keto

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

keto benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • The U.S. military is exploring the possibility of changing its nutritional guidelines so service members will be required to follow a ketogenic or “keto” diet, meaning adopting a low-carb/high-fat approach to food
  • Studies show the keto diet helps reduce the “respiratory quotient,” or the amount of carbon dioxide the body produces relative to the amount of oxygen it consumes
  • Its potential for Navy SEALs and other “elite operators” on dives have proven that going keto may even prevent seizures for divers who need to remain hidden underwater for long periods
  • The new dietary strategy might require an overhaul of the current military menus; the high-carb/high-sugar content of MREs (meals ready to eat), for instance, may be “a thing of the past”
  • Numerous studies show benefits from the keto diet, such as improving your metabolic health and limiting your carb intake can address several aspects of your endocrine system and decrease your insulin levels

Several branches of the U.S. military are looking closely at a whole new approach in regard to nutrition, at least as far as it concerns U.S. troops.1 In short, government agencies are exploring the possibility of changing its nutritional guidelines so service members will be required to follow a ketogenic or "keto" diet.

The keto diet is a tactical strategy that puts the body into a metabolic fat-burning state called ketosis. For the military, it would mean adopting a low-carb/high fat approach to food — burning fat instead of glucose for energy — instead of the other way around.

Dr. David Ludwig, a nutrition professor at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, maintains that a keto diet helps reduce the "respiratory quotient," which is the amount of carbon dioxide the body produces relative to the amount of oxygen it consumes.

He notes that it's not oxygen in your blood that makes you want to breathe; it's triggered by the buildup of carbon dioxide, and the keto diet is the best way to lower its production to reduce the respiratory quotient.

In theory, the body needs to breathe as much as 30% less; however, in reality, it would be more like 15% less, which is "still significant in extreme situations, like living in a submarine or diving to retrieve an explosive ordnance."

Lisa Sanders, director of science and technology at U.S. Special Operations Command, spelled out the potential benefits of the keto diet in terms officials at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference could understand and support wholeheartedly: Improved performance.

Its potential for Navy SEALs and other "elite operators" on raids and combat dives, who may be the first to go keto, have proven to be dramatic. Going keto may even prevent seizures for divers who need to remain hidden underwater for long periods. According to Business Insider:

"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.

That kind of technology is available today … We can tell whether you are or are not in ketosis. We have really good indications of how to put you in ketosis. And we know statistically what that does to your ability to sustain oxygen."2

What happens when service members go on a keto diet?

If new keto diet strategies are adopted by the military, menu options at bases everywhere would be replaced. Zero hedge notes that produce choices and meat quality at military dining facilities may be switched out, and the high carb/high sugar content of MREs (meals ready to eat) would also be "a thing of the past."3 Additionally:

"In the future, this could result in dining facilities serving Ezekiel bread, zucchini 'pasta spirals' to replace pasta, mashed cauliflower as a substitute for potatoes and rice, and avocado-heavy salads."4

Some military officials contend that doing so may stretch military budgets. But Jeff Volek, a kinesiologist in the department of human sciences at The Ohio State University, who composed a study recommending the benefits of a keto diet, disagrees.

Volek says that because healthy fat from such options as fish, chicken and other meats, eggs, cheese, butter, nuts, seeds and nonstarchy vegetables would be the primary nutrients, it would likely be less expensive.

The only hitch to the proposal is whether the military has the legal and even "ethical" authority to dictate and enforce such dietary restrictions. Due to the possibility some may "cheat," daily ketosis testing via urine and blood tests may be in store to ensure soldiers stay in a constant state of ketosis. There's also the fact that only strict compliance would make the program successful.

However, research shows a keto diet can help with much more than lowering obesity rates. According to researchers at The Ohio State University, whose work was published in the Journal Military Medicine,5 it also helps boost both mental and physical performance in the field. The authors also noted the participants exhibited "remarkable weight loss and improvements in body composition."

The study, involving 15 study subjects on the keto diet and another 14 individuals eating a regular diet, was the first ever to be designed specifically for military personnel. While in the program, those doing the keto diet had their capillary blood ketones tested on a daily basis. According to New York Post:6

"Those who stayed on their regular diet did not see any changes to their weight, but the keto group saw both weight loss and an almost 50% improvement in insulin sensitivity. However, both groups scored similarly in aerobic capacity, maximal strength, power and a military obstacle course, which means although the keto diet may be good for weight loss, it may not have any specific effect on athletic performance."

According to Sanders, the military has kicked in funding for a "small business research effort" to develop and assess alternative (nondietary) means for soldiers to achieve ketosis, as well as to assess the effect ketosis has on those who've undergone altitude-induced hypoxia. In addition, officials are tracking the results of studies on other extreme environments relevant to special operations forces (SOF) warfighters.

Military intelligence: Changing the menu to fight obesity

Just as the people in charge of U.S. schools and medical facilities have observed, obesity is a growing problem, and that includes every branch of the armed forces. Steps have already been taken to combat the problem, however. In 2014, for instance, the U.S. Navy pulled soda and fried foods from its ships' menus.7

In addition, the Army launched its own Go For Green program, designed to engage "nudging strategies" so troops would be more inclined to select healthy foods and drinks, says Laura Mitvalsky, director of health promotion and wellness at the Army Public Health Center. She also maintains that small changes like these are solutions that can improve the nutritional status of military personnel.

For soldiers who aren't yet savvy on what foods are most nutritionally sound, the program provides marketing materials geared toward nutrition education. Additionally, color coded food labels in in green, yellow and red are being implemented. In September, the Marine Corps reportedly plans to pull its own trigger on a food coding system to encourage healthy eating, with incentives:

"If the food is labeled green when you go through the chow line, go as much as you want … If it's yellow, go with caution. If it's red, go minimal," says Stephen Armes, director of the Marine Corps' Force Fitness Division.

In fact, a menu rivaling that of U.S. Division I NCAA athletic programs is already in the works. Sharlene Holladay, a certified specialist in sports dietetics for the Marine Corps, says menus will soon feature "Cleaner proteins and better convenience-line grab-go options," as well as such cold-bar options as "traditional vegetables, chopped eggs, yogurt, cheese, salsa, legumes and trail mixes at all meals."8

Senior sports dietician Nikki Jupe at the University of Oregon says choosing certain foods can help improve athletes' mental endurance, while at the same time reducing injury risk and recovery time. Because performance is influenced by nutrition, the benefits are available to soldiers who are intentional in their eating habits.9 Further:

"Incorporating the basic nutrition principles will build a foundation for mission readiness, cognitive performance as well as endurance performance … Using different nutritional strategies (may even help) prepare for deployment …

Having a combat-registered dietitian be a part of the process allows for insight and initial/extended education to aid in better habits and body composition change."

What ketosis does for your health and your life

Numerous studies show that adhering to the keto diet offers health benefits; for instance, one supports its use as an adjunct cancer therapy.10 It can improve your metabolic health, as limiting your carb intake can address several aspects of your endocrine system. For one thing, it drives your insulin level down, which increases your metabolic rate.11

Insulin resistance promotes both fatty liver and high blood sugar, and both can lead to atherosclerosis. In essence, it's at the heart of most serious degenerative diseases, including high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's — and that's just the short list.

On the other hand, the keto diet improves insulin sensitivity, which alleviates the damaging aspects of insulin resistance. How? Rather than focusing on calories taken in, it focuses on the energy the food you eat generates, and the energy your body stores as a result.

When you severely limit your carb intake while focusing on consuming moderate amounts of protein and high amounts of healthy fat, it helps you reach and maintain a healthy weight, for obese people in particular.12 Following a ketogenic diet can reduce inflammation, especially after stroke and brain trauma.13 One study even concluded:

"A major research focus should be on how metabolic interventions such as a ketogenic diet can ameliorate common, comorbid, and difficult-to-treat conditions such as pain and inflammation."14

For individuals wanting to lose weight, an article on ketotic.org shows that newborn babies are naturally in a state of ketosis — a "normal and desirable" state to be in — and remain so as long as they're breastfeeding.15 One randomized controlled study shows a ketogenic diet has in many instances proved to be a successful "treatment," if not a cure for epilepsy.16 

What's wrong with the US Dietary Guidelines?

The USDA's current 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including those used in education, are called the "cornerstone" of federal nutrition policy. Updated every five years, they're "designed for nutrition and health professionals to help all individuals ages 2 years and older and their families consume a healthy, nutritionally adequate diet."17

But one interesting aspect of the military's new endeavor is that the keto diet is completely opposite of the nutritional standards set forth for the general population. According to the guidelines' key recommendations, a healthy diet should include:

A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups — dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other

Fruits, especially whole fruits

Grains, at least half of which are whole grains

Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese and/or fortified soy beverages

A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds and soy products

Oils

The reality is that while the U.S. dietary guidelines advise you to limit the saturated fats you consume, your body needs them. All fats are not created equal. Still, many health authorities continue to warn anything but low-fat and zero-fat will raise LDL cholesterol, clog your arteries and increase your heart disease risk.

Numerous studies now indicate that not only is that 40-year-old advice completely wrong, the correct research was suppressed. The New York Times18 and The Atlantic19 were just two publications refuting the so-called heart-healthy diet. Time20 reported the all-encompassing re-evaluation and research, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ),21 which states:

"Available evidence from randomized controlled trials shows that replacement of saturated fat in the diet with linoleic acid effectively lowers serum cholesterol but does not support the hypothesis that this translates to a lower risk of death from coronary heart disease or all causes."22

Even in a world where genetically engineered foods are touted as perfectly fine for health, grains, including whole grains, are not what they're cracked up to be. It's been well established that genetically engineered (GE) crops and other "significantly altered foods," aka processed, are linked to obesity, disease and early death.

There's also evidence that, rather than basing the dietary guidelines on the latest science, a large portion was gathered from organizations that support food and drug companies.23 For instance, the American Beverage Association (ABA), which includes members such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr Pepper Snapple Group, announced a partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, funded by the AMA and the Clinton Foundation.24

Another approach to the keto diet is KetoFasting, which includes both a cyclical ketogenic diet and partial fasting, as fasting has also become evident. The keto approach, besides those already mentioned, properly combined, increases autophagy and triggers the regeneration of your stem cells, which are crucial for maintaining good health and preventing disease.

Eating to optimize the way your brain and body function is a wise course of action. Viewing food as a fuel and "eating to live as opposed to living to eat" will help you gain the energy and vitality you need. Hopefully, the conversation will help you, as well as soldiers in the military, make informed decisions about what type of diet will help you maintain health and enhance your performance best.