The controversial ketogenic or “keto” diet may be the future of the military, some defense officials say.

Service members, and Navy SEALS especially, may have to forgo beer and burritos for skinny cocktails and avocado salad (forget the tortilla chips) if a proposal from Special Operations Command gains momentum.

While a nutritionally enhanced future could eventually be put into effect for all branches, the SEALS and other underwater dive-mission specialists might be the first groups targeted for the change in nutritional guidelines.

Lisa Sanders, the director of science and technology at U.S. Special Operations Command, presented an Ohio State University study that recommends the nutritional change based on the keto diet, which is high in fat and low in carbohydrates. The diet works to deprive the body of glucose needed for energy and forces it to burn stored fats instead. The study was conducted on the university’s Army ROTC cadet population.

“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,” Sanders said at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in May.

Discussion of new dietary guidelines for service members comes at a time of growing concern about obesity in the military and its potential threat to readiness.

The possibly controversial change for the military is not without problems, not the least of which are questions about whether the military has the legal and ethical authority to control and monitor a service member’s diet 24/7.

Daily ketosis testing?

Service members are familiar with physical training in boot camp and their routine Physical Fitness Tests, but are they ready for daily dietary ketosis testing?

For the keto nutritional plan to be successful, it has to be followed strictly, and that includes after-hours and weekends. Even a service member on leave would possibly face a restricted diet because it simply takes too long for the body to readjust and function in the ketosis stage after a weekend of dietary backsliding and binging on pizza, burritos, and beers.

The keto diet requires the body to be in a constant state of ketosis. Daily urine or blood tests using strips are necessary to measure glucose or ketone levels.

Revamping MREs?

For the diet to be implemented laterally across the military, produce choices and meat quality at military dining facilities across the world would have to change significantly, not to mention the high-carb and sugar content of MRE’s. The popular pepperoni pizza MRE would be a thing of the past.

Although one benefit of formulating a new high-fat food ration is that it would be a lighter weight for service members to carry.

“You can carry even more calories because fats weigh less, which is an advantage,” said Kinesiologist Jeff Volek, a professor at Ohio State University’s Department of Human Sciences and author of the study.

Soldiers with the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado, chow down on pizza MREs. (David Kamm/U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center)
Soldiers with the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado, chow down on pizza MREs. (David Kamm/U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center)

On military bases, the dietary change could result in future dining facilities serving Ezekiel bread, zucchini “pasta spirals” to replace pasta, mashed cauliflower as a substitute for potatoes and rice, and avocado-heavy salad bars replacing soft-serve ice cream machines and dessert bars.

No fries with that at the DFAC

In addition to the regulatory and privacy questions about the proposed dietary change, there are also economic questions. Not only would DFACS and the military have to change, military households would have to follow suit as the diet requires higher quantities and quality of vegetables, fats, and proteins throughout the day.

If a keto meal plan became the required diet of the military’s future, some say military budgets, salaries and allowances may also have to rise to meet the economic demands required to follow the dietary guidelines on duty and off. But Volek, author of the study, disagrees.

“The ketogenic diet is high in fat, which is less costly," Volek said. The majority of the diet is based on fat, and fat calories can be very cheap. “Meats, eggs, fish, chicken, cheese, butter, seeds, nuts, and non-starchy vegetables are the basis of the diet. Fat is the key or primary nutrient.”

If the plan is adopted, it remains to be seen if the Skinnygirl margarita and the low-glycemic sugar-free vodka-tonic favored by Bravo TV’s Real Housewives become the new cocktails of choice for infantrymen and SEALS.