Could a mandatory keto diet improve US military performance?

The US military is studying whether a ketogenic diet can help lower obesity rates — and boost soldiers’ physical and mental performance in the field. 

Researchers at The Ohio State University recently published the first-ever keto study that specifically used military members as subjects, and the results, published in the journal Military Medicine, showed a “remarkable weight loss and improvements in body composition” among its participants. 

For the study, 15 participants followed a keto diet and had their capillary blood ketones tested daily, and were compared with 14 study participants who stayed on their regular diet. 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 percent 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. 

Top Pentagon officials told the Washington Times that prior studies have shown that those in ketosis can stay underwater for longer periods, which would be ideal for divers and Navy SEALS. 

“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 [deeper] depths for longer periods of time and not go into oxygen seizures,” Lisa Sanders, the director of science and technology at US Special Operations Command, said at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida, in May.

Sanders told Business Insider via email that the military is currently funding “a small business research effort to assess the effect that ketosis has on altitude-induced hypoxia, as well as develop and assess alternative (non-dietary) means to achieve ketosis.”

Similar to the ‘90s darling diet, Atkins, the keto diet is the popular high-fat, extremely low-carb way of eating — fewer than 50 grams of carbs a day — so that your body gets into a state of ketosis, where it’s burning fat for fuel, rather than carbs. 

Research has found that when the body is in ketosis, the brain may also be getting a boost — a study found that young people with epilepsy had fewer seizures after following the diet. 

But while the Mayo Clinic calls the research “exciting,” they note that “there’s very little evidence to show that this type of eating is effective — or safe — over the long term for anything other than epilepsy.” 

On the flip side, the diet has been associated with high cholesterol, constipation, and bad breath. There’s also the horrific-sounding “keto crotch” which, unfortunately, is exactly what it sounds like. 

Plus, forcing soldiers to change their diet and lifestyle brings with it a slew of legal and ethical issues. Being in ketosis isn’t something you can hop in and out of — it takes people an average of four days to enter — meaning soldiers would have to stay on the “diet” even during their off time. Plus, in order to enforce the regulation, the military would have to test its service people’s ketone levels regularly. 

These possible changes also come with some bad timing: Just last year, Army scientists created an MRE pizza with a three-year shelf life so soldiers can eat the doughy delight in the field. 

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