(Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of articles about diet and Soldier performance.)
Seven years ago the Army introduced “Fuel the Soldier” as a way to enhance the health of its Soldiers. About the same time, and although his motivation to change his diet came from another source, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jeremy Patterson began to earnestly eat a whole food plant-based diet.
Today, the Army carries on the effort to promote Soldier health in its Go For Green program, which like its ancestor, labels foods as red, amber, and green, with green offering the highest health benefits. As for Patterson, he’s firmly committed to his source of nutrition even as he spreads the word about the benefits of a plant-based diet.
The 15-year Army veteran began his military career as a cook and said vegetables weren’t a big part of his life. Instead, he ate biscuits and gravy, bacon, sausage, and eggs.
“I was a big guy with a big waist,” he said. “I was embarrassed because I wasn’t a young, slim 18-year-old; it started catching up to me at age 25.”
Despite frequent workouts, his weight remained at or slightly above the 200-pound maximum for his height.
“I always had to sit in the sauna before a weigh-in and wonder, ‘Am I going to pass this weight test?,” said Patterson, the food service adviser to the 75th Field Artillery Brigade commander.
He said as he pushed past the big 3-0, a look at his waistline convinced him it was time to change. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a whole food plant-based diet, it consists of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts. It also shuns processed foods and limits or excludes the use of vegetable oils.
Fortunately, Patterson didn’t need to look for a mentor to guide him through this change. His wife, Amie provided all the support he needed.
“My wife has been eating vegetarian since she was a child and always looked really healthy,” he said.
Despite this homeward help, his culinary transformation didn’t occur with a well stocked commissary nearby. It happened during a deployment to Afghanistan, and he admitted he wondered if he would be OK going fully plant based.
Although his diet changed, he continued to workout regularly, often with twice daily visits to the gym.
Fueling this fitness push wasn’t as much a problem for a Soldier already in the food industry, as Patterson knew all he needed was a good salad bar and beans.
“The biggest question I get is, ‘where do you get your protein?’ He said protein is readily available in vegetables, and that most struggles in plant-based eating occur early on in the learning phase. This is when one figures out which plants will satisfy the various nutritional requirements.
Patterson realized a healthy salad gave him his vitamins and minerals, and then beans rounded out the meal. Care packages supplemented dining facility fare, but with a different basic ingredient.
“My wife sent me packets of tofu — shelf-stable tofu — that makes a great snack,” said Patterson, who added a care package can contain a lot of tofu.
Evaluating his workouts, Patterson realized that while he got sore afterward, recovery time was much shorter than before he switched his diet. Sometimes these gains in strength and endurance led to verbal sparring with his battle buddies.
“I told them I don’t need to eat what you’re eating to be fit and strong, and oh by the way, my run time is better than yours,” he said. “I felt clean and never felt weighed down when working out on a plant-based diet.”
That translated to the running results of his physical training test. His 11-minute, 20-second two-mile runs earned him the title of fastest Soldier in his unit.
Comparable to his workouts, Patterson said his diet change also gives him more energy at work, which is good considering he’s the sort who works hard.
“I eat more throughout the day, but it’s veggie snacks, fruit, quinoa. That’s what I like about this way of eating; plant based allows me to eat great things all day long, and I don’t feel guilty about it,” said the energetic 185-pound Soldier.
And, for anyone contemplating or starting a dietary change, it’s good to get buy-in from a health care provider. Patterson said that was confirmed after a blood test. Analyzing the results, his primary care manager told him the numbers were the best he’d ever seen and whatever Patterson was doing with his diet, to keep doing it.
Serving on a post communicating the value of the Healthy Army Communities culture, Patterson spoke of the Army values of loyalty, duty, honor, respect, selfless service, integrity, and personal courage.
“As a leader, I feel an obligation, a passionate obligation, to pass this way of eating on to every Soldier,” he said.
Patterson might tell them about Carl Lewis, a famous vegan who won an Olympic gold medal and set a sprinting world record.
“I believe strongly in leading Soldiers, giving them the information, and letting them decide what they should eat,” he said.
For more information on plant based or vegan eating, Patterson invites people to browse topics of interest on the Vegan Army page on Facebook.
Pictured above: Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jeremy Patterson shows a plate of food loaded with color and nutrition at the Guns and Rockets Dining Facility at Fort Sill, Okla. The food service adviser to the 75th Field Artillery Brigade commander finds a plant-based diet agreeable to his soldierly duties.