Obese Military?

I came across some articles on obesity and the military (see below). Metabolic syndrome, obesity being one part of it, is on the rise in the military and in the population in general, along with much else such as autoimmune and mood disorders.

Weight issues are not an issue of mere exercise, as I discovered in aging. The weight began accruing in my thirties and continued into my forties. I’ve always been active and so, in response, I became even more active. I had long done aerobic exercise multiple times a week, often long jogs and sometimes carrying extra weight. Weightlifting was added to my regimen these past few years. Still, the body fat wouldn’t budge. Besides, the worst rates of obesity are found among the young and so aging is not the issue, as further demonstrated by age-related diseases (e.g., what was once called adult onset diabetes) hitting hard at younger and younger ages.

Why is that? Some of it is basic biological changes in aging, of course — still, that couldn’t explain it all since it is happening in all age groups. I had improved my diet over time, but admittedly I was still eating a fair amount of carbs and sugar, even if no where near the amount the average American gets. In the wider population, the consumption of carbohydrates and added sugars has drastically increased over time, specifically as dietary percentage of red meat and saturated fat has gone down while dietary percentage of vegetables and vegetable oils has been on the rise. There are other complex factors that could be mentioned, but I’ll keep it simple.

The point is that the American population, in and outside of the military, are in compliance with official dietary recommendations. The military is even able to enforce a high-carb, low-fat diet on military personnel since they have few other choices when food is prepared for them, and it is specifically during deployment that military personnel have the worst diet-related health decline. There is no greater opportunity than the military for gathering highly-controlled dietary data, as the only other segment with more controlled diets are those locked away in institutions. Also, the military enforces a rigid exercise program, and those who join are those who self-selected for this lifestyle and then had to meet high standards to be accepted. Yet military personnel apparently are getting fatter and fatter.

The amount of carbohydrates we’re talking about here is not insignificant. The USDA recommends 50-60% of the diet to consist of carbohydrates with an emphasis on grains, most of those simple starchy carbs (as a side note, at present, %40 of the calories in the American diet come from seed oils; which some argue also contributes to metabolic diseases). Even adding some fiber back into processed foods doesn’t really make them any healthier. Grains alone brings up a whole mess of other issues besides gluten (e.g., grains block absorption of certain key nutrients) — it’s long been known that the best way of fattening animals is with grains.

To put in context how distorted is our diet, a recent study compared a high-carb and a low-carb diet where the latter consisted of 40% carbs. If that is what goes for low-carb these days, no wonder we are such a sickly population. Most traditional societies rarely get such high levels of carbs and what they do get usually comes from sources that are fibrous and nutrient-dense. Look at hunter-gatherers — 40% carbs would be at the extreme high end with many groups only getting 22% carbs. As a concrete example, compared to potato chips or a baked potato, chewing on a fibrous wild tuber is a laborious process because of how tough it is, only gaining slightly more calories than you’d be expending for all the effort.

For further perspective, a study published this month implemented a ketogenic diet (Richard A. LaFountain et al, Extended Ketogenic Diet and Physical Training Intervention in Military Personnel). That by itself isn’t noteworthy, as ketosis has been scientifically studied for about a century. What is significant is that it was the first time that such a diet done was done with military personnel. If you’re familiar with this area of research, the results were predictable which is to say they were typical. Military personnel aren’t essentially any different than other demographics. We all evolved from the same ancestors with the same metabolic system.

The results were positive as expected. Health improved in all ways measured. Body fat, in particular, was lost — relevant because the subjects were overweight. Benefits were seen in other aspects of what is called metabolic syndrome, such as better insulin sensitivity. All of this was accomplished while physical fitness was maintained, an important factor for the military. Going by what we know, if anything, physical fitness would improve over time; but that would require a longer term study to determine.

Ketosis is how I and millions of others have lost weight, even among those who don’t know what ketosis is. Anyone who has ever restricted their diet in any way, including fasting, likely has experienced extended periods of ketosis with no conscious intention being required — ketosis simply happens when carbs and sugar are restricted, and even commercial diets like Weight Watchers are quite restrictive along these lines. Other ketogenic gains often are experienced in relation to hunger, cravings, mood, energy, stamina, alertness, and focus. The point here, though, was weight loss and once again it was a glorious success.

That such studies are finally being done involving the military indicates that, after a century of research, government officials are maybe finally coming around to taking ketosis seriously. It’s understandable why drug companies and doctors have been resistant, since there is no profit in a healthy sustainable diet, but profit isn’t a concern for the military or shouldn’t be, although military contractors who provide the food might disagree (high-carb food is cheaper to provide because of high-yield crops subsidized for a half century by the government). If the USDA won’t change its guidelines, maybe the military should develop its own. A military filled with those of less than optimal health is a national security threat, and military leaders are acknowledging this fact — they can’t afford to be in denial.

As for the rest of us, maybe it’s time we look to the studies and make informed decisions for ourselves. Not many doctors know about this kind of research. And if anything, doctors have a misinformed fear about ketosis because of confusion with diabetic ketoacidosis. Doctors aren’t exactly the most knowledgeable group when it comes to nutrition, as many have noted. And the government is too tied up with agricultural and food corporations. Any positive changes will have to come from the bottom up. These changes are already happening in a growing movement in support of alternative diets such as ketogenic low-carb, which is maybe what brought it to the attention of some military officials.

Government will eventually come around out of necessity. A global superpower can’t maintain itself in the long run with a malnourished, obese, and sickly population. The healthcare costs and lost sick days alone could cripple society — even now most of the healthcare costs go to a few preventable diseases like diabetes. I’m willing to bet that when the next world war is fought the soldiers will be eating low-carb, high-fat rations made with nutrient-dense ingredients. Not doing so would risk having an inferior military. For-profit ideology only goes so far when the stakes are high.

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Is U.S. Nutrition Policy Making the Military (and Recruits) too Fat to Fight?
from Nutrition Coalition

This year, for the first time since 2005, the Army fell short of its recruitment goal, according to the recent report, “Unhealthy and Unprepared,” by The Council for a Strong America, a group of retired generals and admirals. Obesity was largely to blame. Some 71% of young people between the ages of 17 and 24 fail to qualify for military service, says the report. These alarming numbers raise the disturbing question of whether the U.S. will be able to continue the luxury of maintaining an all-volunteer army in the future.

Another recent study, this one by the Rand Corporation found that some two-thirds of the nation’s active military personnel are overweight or obese. Topping the scale is the Army, with 69.4% of its personnel overweight or obese. But even the trimmest military branch – the Marine Corps – isn’t much better, at 60.9%. These numbers may be misleading, since “obesity” is defined by BMI (body mass index), which does not distinguish between whether extra pounds come fat or muscle—the latter being more likely to be the case in the military. Still, rates of 60-69% are disturbingly high. Since these folks are following the military’s exercise program, we certainly can’t blame them for shirking on physical activity.

It seems, in fact, that the U.S. military diet actually worsens health, according to an Army publication six years ago. Chanel S. Weaver of the U.S. Army Public Health Command wrote, “Even those Soldiers who are actually fit enough to deploy can face challenges in maintaining a healthy weight while serving in the deployed environment.”

In the article, Dr. Theresa Jackson, a public health scientist at the U.S. Army Public Health Command, states, “Literature suggests that fitness decreases and fat mass increases during deployments.” This is an astonishing fact: fitness declines in the military, despite mandated regular exercise.

This paradox could be explained by the growing understanding that exercise plays a relatively minor role in weight loss. “You can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet,” is the new common catchphrase among experts. Instead, the principal factor driving obesity, as the data increasingly show, is poor nutrition.

A look at the Army’s nutrition guidelines shows that they emphasize low-fat, high-carbohydrate foods. The Army recommends eating “…high protein, low-fat items such as: fish, beans, whole wheat pasta, egg whites, skim or 1 percent milk, and low-fat yogurt” while avoiding “items such as: fried items, high fat meats, egg yolks, and whole milk.” This guidance comes from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), a policy that has been co-issued by USDA and US-HHS since 1980. The military essentially downloads these guidelines and serves food in mess halls to reflect DGA recommendations.

Ironically, this reliance on the U.S. Guidelines could well be the very reason for the military’s obesity problems. This diet tells the entire U.S. population to eat 50-60% of their calories as carbohydrates, principally grains, and just as a high-grain diet fattens cattle, a large body of government-funded science shows that a high-carbohydrate diet, for most people, is inimical to sustainable weight loss.

The argument that Americans don’t follow the guidelines is not supported by the best available government data on this subject—which demonstrates widespread adherence to the Dietary Guidelines.

New military study: “Remarkable” results among soldiers on a ketogenic diet
by Anne Mullens and Bret Scher

Those on the ketogenic diet lost an average of 17 pounds (7.5 kg), 5 percent of their overall body fat, 44 percent of their visceral fat, and had their insulin sensitivity improve by 48 per cent. There was no change in the participants on the mixed diet. Training results in physical strength, agility, and endurance in both groups were similar.

The researchers noted:

The most striking result was consistent loss of body mass, fat mass, visceral fat, and enhanced insulin sensitivity in virtually all the ketogenic diet subjects despite no limitations on caloric intake. Physical performance was maintained…. These results are highly relevant considering the obesity problem affecting all branches of the military.

[…] Although neither group counted calories, the ketogenic diet group naturally reduced their caloric intake while eating to satiety.

The most noteworthy response was a spontaneous reduction in energy intake, resulting in a uniformly greater weight loss for all ketogenic diet participants.

The military should lead the U.S. fight against obesity
by Steve Barrons

That advice, driven by the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, has largely stuck to the familiar low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet that calls on us to cut meat, butter and cheese. Yet in recent years, the science has evolved, and it has become increasingly clear to people like me that fats aren’t the enemy. Indeed, as I ate more fat and reduced my intake of sugars and other carbohydrates like grains, I lost weight and became healthier.

Experiences like mine are now backed by a fast-growing body of science, showing carbohydrate restriction to be effective for fighting obesity and diabetes while improving most heart-disease risk factors.

For many, it’s hard to get past the basic assumption that the fat on your plate becomes the fat in your body. But the truth is that it’s excessive carbohydrates that turn into body fat — completely contrary to what Americans have long been told.

So why hasn’t the government’s dietary advice caught up to the science? According to a rigorous investigation in The BMJ on the dietary guidelines, the experts appointed to review the scientific evidence relied on weak scientific standards in their report and failed to review the most recent science on a number of topics, including optimal intakes for carbohydrates, saturated fat and salt. Most critically, the report relied heavily on observational studies in which researchers follow test groups over long periods of time. But even the best epidemiological studies, according to the BMJ, “suffer from a fundamental limitation. At best they can show only association, not causation. Epidemiological data can be used to suggest hypotheses but not to prove them.” This is science 101.

The U.S. military serves more than 150 million meals per year to its personnel, and when those meals are based on a government-advised, high-carbohydrate diet, our troops have a harder time staying trim and healthy. The Army’s own website warns people to stay away from high-fat meats, egg yolks and whole milk and advises “eating less fatty food for better overall health,” while encouraging a diet that includes pasta and bread. Making matters worse, service members usually have fewer options for avoiding these nutritional mistakes, especially on deployments when they often can’t cook their own meals.

Pentagon eyes controversial diet in bid to build more lethal warriors
by Ben Wolfgang

Ditching carbs may be the key to military success in America’s future wars.

Top Pentagon officials say research has shown that human bodies in ketosis — the goal of the popular and controversial ketogenic diet — can stay underwater for longer periods, making the fat- and protein-heavy eating plan a potential benefit to military divers. It is one example of a rapidly growing trend as military researchers zero in on how nutrition and certain drugs can enhance how fighting men and women perform in battle. […]

But industries that specialize in the link between diet and performance are eager to engage in complex conversations about using cutting-edge science to optimize the human body while preserving basic elements of choice and individuality. The example of how ketosis — a biological process in which the body burns fat for fuel — could produce more capable military divers is one of the clearest examples of the 21st-century debate that now confronts the Pentagon.

“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, director of science and technology at U.S. Special Operations Command, said at a high-level defense industry conference in Tampa late last month.

“That kind of technology is available today,” she said. “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.

“The problem,” she said, “is I don’t have the authority to tell people — swimmers, submariners, etc. — that they’re going to get themselves in ketosis so they can stay in the water longer. That’s an authority question, not a technology question.”

Defense Department to ban beer and pizza? Mandatory keto diet may enhance military performance
by Kristine Froeba

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. […]

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. […]

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 ration is that it would be lighter weight 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.

* * *

* * *

9/30/22 – The Department of Defense continues the research into the keto diet:

Can achieving beneficial ketone levels improve metabolic health in the military?
by Emily Caldwell

“Operation Metabolic Dominance”: Ketones, US Military, and H.V.M.N.
by Geoffrey Woo & Michael Brandt

Department of Defense Studying Keto for the Military
from r/keto subreddit

14 thoughts on “Obese Military?

  1. I was in Navy Boot Camp in the summer of 1954, San Diego. I entered the service at 139 pounds, 11 weeks later after completing basic training I was 156, and was still lean for a guy around 5′ 9″, or slightly less. We weren’t told to eat any specific foods, just anything we wanted, in any amount from what was offered. I don’t remember much about what was offered, but I never drank so much whole milk in my life, and loving it.

    • Sounds like a different world. And indeed it was. You came of age at a decent time for health. The beginnings of obesity and other public health problems were showing (Nicolas Rasmussen, Fat in the Fifties: America’s First Obesity Crisis), although nothing like today. A few people like Weston A. Price and Adelle Davis were ahead of their time in warning about nutritional deficiencies. WWII was a wake-up call for the government, when 40% of draftees were too obese, malnourished, or sickly to serve in the military. So, after the war, they began a school food program and increased nutritional fortification. That took care of the worst nutritional deficiencies.

      1954 was more than a quarter of century before our present high-carb, low-fat USDA guidelines. Back then, military personnel drank whole milk and now they drink skim. Despite certain deficiencies, the food in general back then was more nutrient-dense, as the soil was still healthier before industrialized agriculture had fully taken hold. Research has shown how much nutrients have declined in the food supply over the past half century or so. Some vegetables have far less than half of the nutrients they once had.

      Keep in mind that in the ’50s, there were people in the mainstream advocating LCHF diets and it was more normal at the time. 1956 was the year Ancel Keys began his Seven Countries Study that would eventually transform the food system, but it wasn’t published until 1978 and only in 1980 did it more directly shape public policy. What initially got the ball rolling, though, was President Eisenhower’s stroke in 1957. Suddenly, saturated fat and cholesterol became public debate, but now we know that sugar is a stronger correlation to cardiovascular disease, even based on a reassessment of Keys’ original data.

  2. Interesting. You’ve obviously given a lot of thought to nutrition.
    For what it’s worth, here’s what I see as the main reasons we Americans are getting fatter.
    1. Sedentary lives. More of us can make a living without much physical exertion. More of us spend hours in front of glowing screens.
    2. Junk food addition. Eric Schlosser writes about this in FAST FOOD NATION. Just like tobacco companies with nicotine, junk food companies have figured out how to put in the precise amount of sugar, salt and fat that will appeal to the natural human craving for these substances.
    3. Indirect subsidies of junk food. Corn subsidies lessen the cost of producing high fructose corn syrup and corn-fed meat.

    • Thanks for the links! You’re absolutely right about the last two points. I’ve read a lot about that. Marion Nestle has numerous writings on this. And there is Formerly Known As Food by Kristen Lawless. There are others who write on it as well.

      The subsidization has been a big issue that I’m all too aware of residing in a farm state. I live amidst a sea of corn that is maintained as highly profitable through tax money. This floods the market with cheap surpluses of high fructose corn syrup, along with surplus yields of soy and grains. That is what the Green Revolution accomplished. We managed to feed the world only to make everyone sick to the point that we will bankrupt ourselves dealing with the costs of healthcare, disabilities, and sick days.

      The other problem is industrial agriculture, unlike traditional crop rotation and grazing, isn’t sustainable. It’s precisely because of destructive industrial agriculture that nutritional content of food has dropped like a rock and led to mass nutritional deficiencies, and that is particularly important for fat-soluble vitamins that are found in high concentration in traditionally grass-fed and free-range animals — the focus of the work by Weston A. Price and his discovery of what he called Activator X, what later became identified as vitamin K2 (a major nutritional deficiency for most Americans).

      About exercise, it does matter. But research seems to indicate that it isn’t necessarily as central of an issue. The body compensates with more exercise with greater hunger for more calories. It’s not so much how many calories one eats but what kinds of calories and how they’re used. We now know that a low-carb diet, especially if pushed to ketogenic, creates what is called a “metabolic advantage” where a higher percentage of calories are burned proportionate to how many calories eaten (partly related to thermogenesis). A ketogenic diet in particular completely alters how your body functions and, based on personal experience, it is utterly amazing — as I’ve told you about in terms of the decades of my severe depression almost entirely disappearing with not a single depressive funk since I changed to low-carb, high-fat (LCHF)

      On a high-carb (especially low-fat) diet, many people, myself included, find it hard to lose weight even when exercising. But on a LCHF, many people, myself included, find it hard to not lose weight. I had become overweight as I aged on what I thought was a relatively healthy diet of moderate carbs and sugar (‘balanced’ with plenty of fiber and vegetables), despite regularly exercising with both jogging and weightlifting multiple times a week. But after three months on LCHF I lost 60 pounds and did so with ease — it just melted away without effort. I’ve been on a ketogenic diet for much of the past year, particularly the last few months, and I’ve purposely had to increase my calorie and fat intake to ensure I maintained my weight.

      I watched a video of Gary Taubes talking about this. He mentioned a scientist who tried to get people to gain weight on LCHF diet but was unsuccessful. The main thing is that LCHF (combined with high salt, as the body needs more salt on LCHF) is extremely satiating and actually makes over-eating uncomfortable and difficult. Most people find hunger decreases and cravings disappear. It’s hard to eat too much on LCHF because you find that you naturally eat less than you did before. It’s a built-in portion control.

      Taubes has a couple of great books on this topic: Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat? Another great journalist is Nina Teicholz with her book The Big Fat Surprise, soon to come out as a documentary. In Taubes’ book, he specifically talks about the issue of why exercise alone can’t help people lose weight. Along with Mary Enig before him and Teicholz after him, he has helped open up public debate about fat consumption and obesity. These are fascinating and eye-opening books. What I loved about them is how they go into immense detail about the history behind how we got to this point.

      I wouldn’t spend so much time and effort on this if it wasn’t personal. My curiosity is quite insatiable, but I can’t say I was too interested in nutrition and diet until I read some great writers who helped me understand why it can be so interesting.

    • I found the section in Gary Taubes’s book, Why We Get Fat. There is an entire chapter dedicated to it, Chapter 3 “The Elusive Benefits of Exercise”. I’d recommend reading the book, along with his other books and that of Teicholz as well. But for our purposes here, I’ll share only the concluding comments of that chapter:

      “Before I finish this discussion of exercise and energy expenditure, I want to return briefly to the guidelines published in August 2007 by the American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine. “It is reasonable to assume that persons with relatively high daily energy expenditures would be less likely to gain weight over time, compared with those who have low energy expenditures,” the expert authors had written. “So far, data to support this hypothesis are not particularly compelling.”

      “Damaging as this may be to the notion that we can lose weight by exercising, the authors were unwilling to be definitive. They had slipped in a qualification, the words “so far.” By doing so, they were leaving the door of possibility open. Maybe somebody, someday, would show scientifically that what these experts believed in their hearts to be true really was.

      “But they missed the point with their qualification. Here it is: this idea that we get fat because we’re sedentary and we can get lean or prevent ourselves from fattening further by upping our energy expenditure is at least a century old. One of the most influential European authorities on obesity and diabetes, Carl von Noorden, suggested this in 1907. We can, in fact, trace it to the 1860s, when the obese British undertaker William Banting discussed his numerous failed attempts to lose weight in his best-selling Letter on Corpulence . A physician friend, wrote Banting, suggested he slim down by “increased bodily exertion.” So Banting took up rowing “for a couple of hours in the early morning.” He gained muscular vigor, he wrote, “but with it a prodigious appetite, which I was compelled to indulge, and consequently increased in weight, until my kind old friend advised me to forsake the exercise.”

      “The experts from the AHA and the ACSM would like to think that maybe if we just put further effort into studying the relationship between exercise and weight—if we do the experiments in just the right ways—we will finally confirm what von Noorden and Banting’s physician friend and a century of researchers and physicians and exercise aficionados ever since have argued somehow must be true.

      “The history of science suggests another interpretation: if people have been thinking about this idea for more than a century and trying to test it for decades and they still can’t generate compelling evidence that it’s true, it’s probably not. We can’t say it’s not with absolute certainty, because science doesn’t work that way. But we can say that there’s now an exceedingly good chance it’s simply wrong, one of the many seemingly reasonable ideas in the history of science that never panned out. And if reducing calories-in doesn’t make us lose weight, and if increasing calories-out doesn’t even prevent us from gaining it, maybe we should rethink the whole thing and find out what does.”

      I noticed that, on Google Books, you can purchase this section of the book for only 99 cents, although it might be a revised version of the aforementioned chapter. The title of it is “The Elusive Benefits of Undereating and Exercise: from Why We Get Fat”.


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