Caveman at Sea

A Naval Officer's Perspective on Paleo Nutrition and Fitness in Today's Navy


JP is a naval aviator and Byrd House Paleo sous chef.

“As one of several Byrd House members currently serving in the Navy, I thought I’d take a look at my personal nutrition efforts during a life of travel and bring in some larger military nutrition issues.”

Military Nutrition & Navy Physical Fitness

The Navy faces serious challenges as it seeks to maintain the physical fitness of its Sailors. Paleo nutrition could be one answer as the Navy strives to retain healthy, fit, and capable Sailors. In full disclosure, I’m not an expert on the science of Paleo. That is my wife. It’s one of her passions.

But I’ve learned much of the basics during dinner conversations and commercial breaks during sports games when, “Ok, listen to this…”. That is, I know enough to describe the difference between Omega 3s and Omega 6s, the mal-affects of processed foods, insulin response and the importance of natural protein in our daily diets.

At some point I bought in. Heart disease is in my family history and, thinking long term, I didn’t want to go down without a fight. What I found was not just something that gives me a chance at longevity. I want something that compliments my fitness regimen and makes me capable of tackling the demands that military life often places on my time and need for focus.

But all that will not surprise you. Here at our house and during visits to the Byrd House eating Paleo is easy. Where it gets challenging is when I pack my seabag and walk out the door for several weeks or several months at a time. I’m on my own.

“. . . when I pack my seabag and walk out the door for several weeks or several months at a time. I’m on my own.”

The Military Nutrition Problem

Whether it’s in a base dining facility (DFAC), Navy mess hall, out in town in a foreign country or at the Commissary (military word for grocery store on base), it is a challenge to stay on track.

A DFAC and Navy “mess hall” are basically high school cafeterias. Even on a ship the parallels are uncanny, right down to the food choices. There are the trays; grab your silverware; plates are still hot from the wash 5 minutes ago; jump in line and run your tray down the stainless steel grooved counter; you’re off to the races! Lunch ladies are replaced by Sailors whose military occupational specialty (MOS) is “Culinary Specialist”, a skill for which they spend several weeks in training after initial boot camp and continue to refine their skills as their careers progress.

Just like high school, the United States Food and Drug Administration’s (USFDA) “Food Pyramid” (now called “Choose My Plate”) defines the spread at the DFAC. Usually, there are a couple choices of meats. One is almost always closer to primal than the other (garlic chicken vs. chicken fried steak for example).

Carbs are found in the usual forms, often with the choice of going for veggies over fries, or rice over noodles, etc. More often than not, you’ll find the last item offered will be a bread roll of some sort… howdy, Texas Toast. A friendly “No, thank you” often yields a perplexed expression on the other side of the counter, then on to the next candidate.

Finally, desserts abound! So bring your will power. Drink options range from ‘full on’ sugar soda fountain to sugar laden juices to milk… then there’s good old fashioned water, God bless it.

My point is, just like anywhere else in the world, a DFAC offers both success and failure for the primal minded service member.

Boatswain’s Mate pipes the mess call

Base Dining Facility (DFAC)

It doesn’t take a Master’s degree in nutritional chemistry to choose the good over the bad. Just the basics and you’ll be alright. The DFAC is not the only place that Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Soldiers will eat on a military installation. There are plenty of restaurants that work through the Department of Defense exchange enterprise to establish venues on almost every U.S. military base in the world. Common ones are Subway, Charley’s, Taco Bell, McDonalds, and Chili. Much has already been written about the challenges to primal eating at “mass production” restaurants or fast food places such as these.

But for service members who often have only a short window of time to eat lunch, the DFAC might be a bridge too far. The longer lines at the DFAC and a Sailor’s tight schedule can be inconvenient. And, Sailors may not work near the DFAC or have a lunch time that fits the DFAC schedule that is usually limited to 11 am – 1 pm (that’s 1100 to 1300 for all you military types!). Yet, McDonalds is right across the street from the aircraft hangar or ship dock and pretty much open all the time. Guess where our Sailors often end up?

My advice to sailors is simple. Just like anything else in life, it takes forethought, planning, knowledge and will power. Why not pack a lunch? Or, at least prioritize your lunch hour for a place with a Paleo option. Learn the science (even casually) and develop habits from which you won’t retract.

“Again, just like anything else in life, a Paleo lifestyle takes forethought, planning, knowledge and will power.”

“Every 6 months we send home far too many talented aircraft maintainers, nuclear technicians, intelligence specialists and ship drivers for failing the Physical Fitness Assessment.”

The Military Fitness Problem

Believe me, I’ve thought about whether the answer might be to just abolish all the fast food establishments on military bases while opening the DFACs for all day dining. But that wouldn’t solve the knowledge problem. It may well be that our Sailors just ‘don’t know what they don’t know’ and that leads to the following issue.

On an institutional level, there is a bit of an epidemic taking place when it comes to Sailor fitness and health. It’s closely akin to what the rest of America is experiencing – for many of the same reasons.

To measure member readiness, twice a year (spring and fall), all Navy personnel take the Physical Fitness Assessment (PFA). The PFA consists of two parts: the Physical Readiness Test (PRT) which includes pushups, situps and a 1.5 mile run (or 500yd or 450m swim) and the Body Fat Composition Assessment (BCA) – conducted separately, in the days leading up to the PRT. The BCA piece might surprise some of you – it surprised me when it showed up as part of the PFA several years ago.

My intuition tells me that at some point Navy leadership (both senior officer and senior enlisted) got sick of seeing Sailors bulging out of their cracker jacks, khakis and working uniforms. Obesity was a poor reflection on the service and it had to change. And, this presented a real opportunity to facilitate a program that articulates the nature of the nutrition problem in America while designing training and standards that are truthful and realistic.

The outcome was adding the BCA to the already existing PRT, making what we have today — the PFA. The current version of the BCA consists of measuring a Sailor’s height and weight. If the Sailor’s weight exceeds an allowable value relative to the Sailor’s height (based on American Medical Association standards), then the Sailor’s waist is measured. If the Sailor’s waist measures in excess of 39 inches for men, 35.5 inches for women, then that Sailor moves on to what is affectionately called “the rope and choke”.

The rope and choke measures the circumference of the Sailor’s neck (and additionally hips for women). It is used in combination with the previously determined waist measurement to calculate a body fat percentage (using charts published in the official Navy instruction manual). If that body fat percentage exceeds a certain value (26% for men, 36% for women), then the BCA is considered a failure. This makes the entire PFA a failure. If a Sailor scores two failures in a three year period, then they are automatically separated from the Navy (kicked out). According to the Navy’s official website, the total active and reserve force is roughly 436,000 Sailors.

According to the Navy Times, as of October 15th 2015, almost 34,000 active and reserve Sailors had at least one failure on their record. This means they faced mandatory separation from the Navy if they failed the next PFA. That’s 8% of the total force! One caveat here, the BCA standards I described above are the current 2016 standards and less stringent than the standards under which the 34,000 failed up until last year. No telling how the new standards will play out as the standards seem to be in constant flux as the enterprise struggles to find the best system in line with conventional thinking.

The bottom line is that every 6 months we send home far too many talented aircraft maintainers, nuclear technicians, intelligence specialists and ship drivers. This is at great cost to our organization’s corporate knowledge, efficiency, talent retention and, most importantly, operational readiness. The Navy has tried to tackle the issue by implementing nutritional training. Naturally, the approach was  aligned with another government organization, the USFDA – which prescribes the over-simplified and off-target “Choose My Plate” schematic (see below and check out the website if you don’t believe me).

The Solution

So what can be done? What is the way ahead? A cultural paradigm shift. The Navy has the opportunity to make a primal approach mainstream.

As with everything in the military, it starts with training. We get a lot of training general military training (GMT) that addresses culture in the Navy because we want to retain our talent and not lose Sailors to safety mishaps, DUI, sexual assault, drug infractions, etc. However, I can confidently assume that the number of quality Sailors in the Navy is diluted to a greater degree by PFA failures every year than by any of the aforementioned issues combined.

The obvious benefit of mandatory primal nutrition training will be the sustainability and readiness of our force. As well-intended as shifts in the PFA format have been in recent years, these changes do not address the nutrition issues at the heart of the problem. Nor does GMT on nutrition teach to the true science.

More importantly, the Navy is a warfighting organization for which success and failure at the end of each day is determined by real results in training and on the battlefield. In that case, the physical capabilities of our Sailors matter much more than how they look in uniform. Although, it seems obvious that if you prioritized the former, then the latter would naturally improve as well. Therefore, the difficulty level and standards associated with the PRT must be increased. This means, more pushups, more sit-ups and a faster run/swim time required in order to pass. Additionally, the PRT run distance should increase to three miles. The Marine Corps fitness test includes a three mile run (vice 1.5 miles in the Navy) and the Marines have no BCA. Because they don’t need one. Marines stay in shape because it is a part of their culture; they PT (physically train) daily and their training program is challenging; much more challenging than the Navy’s. Although I’d still contend that the Marine fitness program could still be improved by an understanding of paleo nutrition.

Beyond the critical issue of readiness is a long term goal. Should the military choose to inculcate our soldiers and sailors with healthy eating habits based on sound nutrition, the member’s family, friends, and American society as a whole will benefit as retiring or separating members take their knowledge of true nutritional health and fitness out into the real world.

We have made great gains when it comes to changing our organizational culture in the past. The Navy is the most professional and sophisticated it has ever been in its 241 year history. But in the vital interest of retaining as many of those 34,000 Sailors at risk of departing the service due to PFA failures, we must take the next step. We must awaken to the realities of nutrition and fitness with paleo as the mainsail that spurs us forward!

“Our Sailors, their families, friends and American society as a whole will surely benefit should the military enhance its support of healthy eating habits for our soldiers and sailors.”


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