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 U.S. defense officials say they lack the legal authorities to dictate to soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines what they can and cannot eat. Critics of the entire concept warn that the military is entering a danger-filled world if it begins ordering diets and drug protocols solely to build more lethal warriors.
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.”
The keto diet remains the subject of great controversy. While touted an effective way to lose weight, critics say it’s simply not realistic nor healthy to virtually eliminate carbohydrates from one’s plate on a long-term basis.
Beyond the pros and cons of the diet, however, lie philosophical questions about how much control the armed forces can and should exert over the physical bodies of the recruits who make up its ranks. The military long has held members to physical fitness standards and weeded out those with substance abuse problems, but some scholars argue that the diet debate crosses a new ethical boundary.
Critics of dictating diets acknowledge that research and technology have provided unimaginable opportunities for performance improvement, but they warn that they could undercut the finely tuned human body if applied incorrectly.
“For me, it smacks of the removal of free will from one of the most basic of biological functions: eating and consuming energy. It’s also one that misunderstands and misrepresents how a biological organism works,” said E. Paul Zehr, a neuroscientist and biomedical research scholar at Canada’s University of Victoria. “Biological beings are not automatons or machines. You can’t just attempt to optimize one thing and not have it alter something else. All systems … exist in a balance.”
That balance, he said, is “heavily optimized already by evolution.”
“Changing a diet is not like just putting on snow tires,” said Mr. Zehr, author of the book “Chasing Captain America: How Advances in Science, Engineering & Biotechnology Will Produce a Superhuman.”
Meanwhile, researchers are examining how new drugs could aid service men and women before, during and after combat. The Panacea program, a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aims to discover and produce “multitarget drugs that can modulate entire physiological systems with synergistic effect” rather than drug treatments that target individual proteins in the body.
“For the military, the program could rapidly generate new interventions that allow troops to function more effectively under extreme conditions or recover more quickly and completely following stress or injury,” said Tristan McClure-Begley, Panacea’s program manager.
Whether any specific drugs are mandated will be up to “regulatory bodies and individual military services,” said the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Despite the growing body of research on nutrition and diets, analysts stress that there is much more to learn.
An Ohio State University study this year followed 29 people — most members of the campus ROTC — and had roughly half of them follow the keto diet. The study found that the 15 participants on the diet were able “to maintain ketosis for 12 weeks” by eating just 30 to 50 grams of carbohydrates each day.
Those participants lost an average of 17 pounds and 5% of their body fat, researchers say, while those in the group who followed a more carb-heavy diet experienced little change to their bodies.
While the study was small in scale and did not prove whether the diet could aid in certain combat situations, but its authors argue that it’s a step toward broader research into how ketosis could provide an edge for the U.S. military.
“We showed that a group of people with military affiliation could accept a ketogenic diet and successfully lose weight, including visceral adipose tissue, a type of fat strongly associated with chronic disease,” said Jeff Volek, a professor in the department of human science at Ohio State and a co-author of the report. “This could be the first step toward a bigger study looking at the potential benefits of ketogenic eating in the armed forces.”
Moving forward, officials say, it’s crucial to find ways to incorporate the latest nutritional and medical research while not stripping away control over one’s body.
“Anything that deals with a human — our policies and authorities are really difficult to navigate because we have a lot of value on privacy and personal choice,” Ms. Sanders said. “And I think that’s the right thing to have. But sometimes we don’t consider the implications of that.”
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at email@example.com.
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