Ask Stew: Should a Tactical Athlete Go Vegetarian or Vegan?

A sailor chops vegetables.
Ship’s Serviceman 3rd Class Derik Martinez of Fayetteville, North Carolina, chops bell peppers in the galley of the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60) Sept. 21, 2019. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael H. Lehman/U.S. Navy photo)

Not eating animal products (meat, dairy, etc.), like many optional diets and food plans available, is not necessarily for everyone. Whether you are vegetarian or vegan, the elimination of meat and/or dairy products and eggs requires research in order to do it right. If you are not familiar with the Netflix documentary "Game Changers," check it out and decide for yourself.

But if you are thinking about actually going vegan, get professional help from registered dietitians or nutritionists. Here is a question from an active-duty member considering going vegan.

Hey, Stew -- I am active Navy, still training hard for lateral transfers into one of the special ops communities in the next few years and curious about "Game Changers." Is this something that will be helpful? I tend to have more of an ethical reason to do vegetarian more than vegan, as I do not mind eating animal products like milk, eggs, cheese or honey. Do you think I can get what I need with supplements and some animal products? -- Thanks, Maxwell (USN)

Two things to know up front. First, this is a great question to ask a registered dietitian or nutritionist. Second, my answer is based solely on personal experience and opinion. But since most of that movie is based on personal experience and opinions of world-class athletes who are vegan (with some science mixed in), here's my two cents.

The elimination of any macronutrient (protein, plant or animal), fat (plant or animal) or carbs, no matter what diet you are considering, should be taken up with someone who is qualified to create a nutritious program for calorie restriction (less than 1,500 a day); no carbohydrates; no fat; intermittent fasting; keto; paleo; or the cabbage or grapefruit diet. If you are eliminating something as big as a macronutrient or reducing calories significantly, there is a chance that you will miss out on vitamins, minerals, amino acids, electrolytes or other nutritious factor that is neglected by the change in the diet.

Sometimes, change is good; sometimes, it's not. My advice is to give it a try and see whether it works for you. If you are feeling sluggish or experience reduced energy, poor performance with training or see other noticeable changes in your overall health and wellness, you likely are doing it wrong, or it is not right for you.

Also, it depends on your goals. If you are trying to lose weight, reducing calories by eliminating a food group will cause weight loss. If you are trying to grow muscle, get stronger, faster and stay active for long periods of time (selection programs), you need to make sure that whatever calories you eliminate are made up with other food groups to get more calories and any missing nutrients. In order not to lose weight, you may have to eat up to 5,000-7,500 nutritious calories a day to have the energy for long days and nights of spec ops training. This may require multiple meals of extra protein, carbs and fats.

What is your "why?" Ethical? Health? Performance? If you do not want to eat animals, the moral decision is, in my opinion, the strongest reason to be a vegetarian or vegan. A heart disease patient also has logical reasoning behind a change in eating habits.

The athletes in the "Game Changers" film are going to be world-class athletes, no matter what they eat, and if they feel better with a vegan diet, that's great. Is the vegan diet helping them with that missing 5% of performance a high-caliber athlete is looking for in order to stand on a podium, play pro sports and win? Anecdotally -- sure. Is the vegan diet scientifically responsible for the increase in performance? Unclear.

Currently, the military is all over the place with diet. From fast food on bases and chow hall cuisine, to researching the benefits of the Keto Diet, the military is simply a cross section of American society with its own share of dieting varieties, eating disorders and obesity.

Find something that works for you. Get advice from qualified people as to how to do it correctly, so you do not miss out on any vital nutrients that otherwise could be a game changer in your future success.

But to answer your question: yes. I have seen high-performing athletes and tactical athletes on the spec-ops level limit their meat intake and still do above average in performance tasks. And remember: It's never a bad idea to take advantage of the nutrition expert dietitian at the training command if one is available.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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