Can you make a plant-based diet work (even when deployed)?

Capt. Joshua Lockwood, Womack Army Medical Center registered dietician, lauds plant-based servicemembers for their interest in healthier eating. However, he suggests Soldiers not follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet – mainly because the demands of soldiering make a plant-based diet  difficult and almost unsustainable, particularly in a field environment.

“We don’t get a whole lot (of vegetarian Soldiers) and we usually discourage it,” Lockwood explained, because most vegetarians don’t have sufficient choices in dining facilities to support their nutritional needs. If there is a medical reason that a Soldier would require a plant-based diet, they would usually not be a candidate to remain on active duty.

The Department of Defense is starting to take an active role helping servicemembers, Families and civilian employees invest more energy into living in a more purposefully,healthful way.

This month, Fort Bragg joins a select group of military installations that will focus attention on current healthy living programs, and inaugurate new wellness initiatives on the installation.

Whitney Brenner, Fort Bragg’s health promotion officer, said that part of the Healthy Base Initiative effort at Fort Bragg will be a ‘makeover’ of a school cafeteria, to change the way school lunches are presented to students.  The makeover team is led by Adam Brumberg, a research specialist in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University in New York.

Other HBI initiatives, unveiled during the HBI kick-off week which started Monday include a Spouse Wellness Conference, a guided commissary tour to explain how to shop for healthier foods, cooking classes and a Health Expo during the monthly Fort Bragg 5K walk/run at Hedrick Stadium Saturday.

For Okinawa-based Marine Sgt. Jonathan Wright, working in the “machismo mentality” of the Marine Corps, where his fellow warriors try to out alpha-male one another, there are challenges in being the lone vegan.

But Wright chooses education over confrontation.

“Our first occupation is to be able to kill whatever enemy steps in front of us. When I say I don’t want to eat animals, it’s seen with a sort of eyebrow-raised taken-abackedness,” Wright said. “To my co-workers and friends it’s accepted, although some joking comes here and there. I just toss back some vegan knowledge, like the China Study featured in Forks Over Knives, and they retreat.”

Similarly Spc. Natasha Connell, assigned to 1st Theater Support Command, said that military missions make keeping to a plant-based diet challenging. Standing by your decision is possible, but one might be forced to go against the grain.

“Recently I went on a (temporary deployment) to Fort Polk, Louisiana, and there were no dining facilities around and I was with a group. We only had one vehicle, a big van for all of us so I had to accommodate where everyone else wanted to go eat and it felt like my choices were very limited,” Connell said.

But instead of settling, Connell got creative and “at one point I commandeered the van and went to the commissary, bought my food and put it in the place we were staying.”

Incorporate more plants into your diet

In his practice at Womack Army Medical Center, Lockwood described the majority of servicemembers as lacking basic understanding of the need for a wide range of vegetables as part of healthy meals. He says that most Soldiers may have some fruit in the morning, fill the rest of the day with nutritionally inferior complex carbohydrates and finish the day with a meat dish and an overcooked vegetable side or iceberg lettuce drenched in salad dressing.

“For the average Solider, I want them, not to go vegetarian, but at least look at it in the sense of trying to get more vegetables, because that’s what is missing in most diets,” Lockwood said.

Wright said that his time stationed at Camp Lejeune made being plant-based more difficult due to the lack of vegetarian options in the local community. His Family has now moved to Japan, where vegan-friendly restaurants, markets and stores abound and eating a balanced and healthful diet has become less of a challenge.

“The primary staple of the Asian cultures makes it easy - rice, noodles, curry,” Wright said. “Our house is near some of the northern Okinawan farm lands, so it’s just a short drive or a good walk to go pick up some fresh fruit and veggies.”

Learning what to eat beside animal products and processed foods isn’t easy, but with time and interest, Connell and Salah agree, eating a plant-based diet becomes easier.

“Once you start this lifestyle change, information starts coming to you,” Connell said. “I keep learning all the time.”

For many following a plant-based diet, the greatest challenge is being accepted for their decisions to forego meat.

Connell said once she went to the commissary on Fort Bragg and had store employees, and a fellow Soldier, comment on the food she was buying. One asked why she was “eating all these plants” and a first sergeant suggested that “meat’s not really that bad, you should try it some time.”

Perplexed, and a bit affronted, Connell completed her purchase and headed home, thinking  “did I really just get harassed for my food choices?”

(Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on plant-based living.)