Let's learn how to eat processed food again!
February 2, 2012 5:49 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to ease into unhealthy eating? My SO is joining the Navy. He is vegan and not just vegan, but a "I only eat whole foods" type and knows this just isn't going to happen once he goes in.

He knows that he most likely wont be able to even be a strict vegetarian (pulling bacon out of beans, just accepting that his vegetables may have chicken stock), but is really worried about what kind of shock this is going to be to his system. He recently spent a day at his parents house in the mountains and they had bought him frozen vegan eggrolls so he'd have something to eat. Let's just say that after eating those and cheap white bread, he was in the kind of gut distress that makes you want to just go ahead and set up the bathroom like a living room.

Dealing with this would not be ideal at bootcamp. :)

Does anyone have a plan for reintroducing crap (ha) back into your diet to help mitigate some of the butt consequences? Does anyone have any experience eating vegetarian or very healthy at least in the Navy?
posted by stormygrey to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I was a vegetarian (not a vegan) for ten years and recently started eating meat again. I started slowly, which helped - I very rarely felt ill from eating animal protein. I started with using about half chicken stock where I had previously used vegetable stock (as an ingredient, I mean, not straight). I did that for about a week, then started using just the chicken stock. Then I tried a small amount of soup made with chicken stock. When I was sure that wasn't going to cause any internal distress, I started eating very small amounts of chicken. Then, once my system had shown it was okay with that, I added small amounts of turkey.

I would say that, all told, I took about a month and a half to go from "vegetarian" to "comfortably eats chicken, turkey, and maybe a little pork." The only time I had a crappy experience (ha) was when I jumped the gun and ate a few bites of a hamburger at a barbecue, then spent all afternoon in the bathroom. So, for me, moderation and patience was the key.

I have never served in the military but my brother did and my brother-in-law does currently, and they both attest that it's possible to maintain a vegetarian diet in the service. Neither could say if veganism was possible.
posted by SeedStitch at 6:31 AM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I spent 10 years as a vegetarian, and then started eating meat again. Seafood at first, then steaks and chicken, with occasional pork. No issues, at all.
posted by ellF at 6:39 AM on February 2, 2012

The meat is part of it, the processed bit is almost more gut wrenching perhaps, as evidenced by the frozen egg rolls.

A typical meal is half a cabbage, a cup of lima beans, an onion, some garlic, a tomato, and some broccoli stirfried up with a tablespoon of olive oil. He doesn't really eat grains anymore, doesn't add salt, does very little fat. Its really strict (and beleive me, its challenging to eat meals with him every day.) His diet will be very, very different. I think that the oil, sugar, salt, and gluten will get him more than the meat will, but I could be wrong. The whole combination is something he's going to have to deal with.
posted by stormygrey at 6:48 AM on February 2, 2012

I'd ease him into oils first, as that is what upset my stomach the most, going from vegan to omnivore. Start with light oils, then work toward heavier ones.

Grains might be necessary, as they seem to be a mainstay of military diets, so go with the easier-to-digest ones first, which generally means the less-healthy ones, actually. A stomach can break down Wonder Bread faster than, say, Ezekiel Million-Grain Bread (which is why the whole grains are better for you in the long run, but not so great the first time you try to move them through your digestive tract).

I have relatives in the military who eat vegetarian, so he probably doesn't have to add meats, but if he's worried about stocks and such, maybe add some bacon fat or chicken stock to things after you've eased into those others above. Bacon fat/chicken fat/etc. would be well after the heavier vegetable oils, in my book.
posted by xingcat at 6:51 AM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

A typical meal is half a cabbage, a cup of lima beans, an onion, some garlic, a tomato, and some broccoli stirfried up with a tablespoon of olive oil.

Whoa. That is very, very few calories for a young man to eat for a "meal." How many of these meals does he eat every day?

Sometimes I think this kind of extreme food-elimination diet (not only vegan, but only whole foods, and seemingly only super-low-cal vegetables, by that description) is less about health, and more about control. It's possible that his system has become accustomed to too few calories.

Honestly, I think he would be eating healthier just by getting more calories. Maybe he should see a nutritionist for a more holistic guide to healthy eating, and that would help him ease into more calorie-dense meals.
posted by palliser at 7:00 AM on February 2, 2012 [19 favorites]

Maybe our SO should contact the leader of his unit or whatever representative he's been assigned to and talk to them about the food available at the bootcamp he's going to. He can just say that he's had a very specific diet for a while and would like to speak with the nutritionist at the camp so he can transition from this diet to the one that will most assist him in getting into Navy shape during bootcamp. If there isn't a nutritionist available, try contacting one in your local community to discuss the transition, or discuss it with your GP.

I would also recommend easing into oils, then broths, then some of the heavier foods. He's going to need a constant source of protein and fat while training, I'd imagine.

Also, just a warning: I'm a life-long vegetarian and I kind of bristled at the implication that being vegan is the only "healthy" diet out there, so be careful with the way you guys approach his unit on this one because he may come off as an unmitigated ass if he takes that tack again.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:01 AM on February 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

Palliser, I don't disagree actually. He lost about 100 pounds a year ago, he runs an average of 100 miles a month and bikes around 200 and he is terrified of getting fat again.

That being said, the meal above probably has 400-500 calories, which isn't unreasonable if he eats 3-4 meals a day, plus carrots/celery/apples/bananas and the occasional clif bar when he is on a long ride. He HAS to eat constantly to keep up with his exercise routine and maintain his muscle, he is 31 and weighs around 200 pounds.

So part of all this is learning to eat "normally" to some degree, that you can eat other things and not get fat and die of a heart attack. But the introduction of this eating change is sure to cause some distress both gut-wise and mind-wise.
posted by stormygrey at 7:09 AM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing to keep in mind is that this guy is going to be burning through calories like a house on fire. It turns out that if you're ridiculously physically active, you can get away with a lot more "unhealthy" eating than you can if you're mostly sedentary.

Some researchers once took a look at the Amish diet. The results? If you walk 14,000-18,000 steps a day, you too can eat whatever you damn well please. I grew up around Amish country, and lemme tell you, the stuff they eat is far from what a vegan would consider to be "healthy". Lots of fats, oils, and refined sugars, plus meat and gravy all over the place. But they're walking upwards of ten miles a day and spending most of the rest of it in pretty intense physical activity. And they've got almost zero obesity and very low rates of heart disease. A truly active lifestyle, and by "active" I mean "generally engaged in physical activity unless sleeping," covers over a multitude of dietary sins.

Besides, if he's relying purely on vegetables and a little olive oil to get enough calories to make it through bootcamp, he'd never stop eating. Ten thousand daily calories might well be what we're talking about. That's something like four-hundred and fifty cups of cabbage, well over twenty pounds. Vegetables and even starches like potatoes (you'd need seventy a day) just don't have enough calories to make that work. Right now he sounds far more active than the average American, but still probably only spends an hour or two, at most, engaged in physical activity. Up that to ten hours a day and three or four 500 calorie meals just ain't gonna cut it.

And a previous answer is spot on: telling military quartermasters and nutritionists that what they're feeding to the troops isn't "healthy" isn't going to get you much of anywhere. The food served to soldiers and sailors has been thought about a lot and is designed to keep service members in top physical condition. It works too.
posted by valkyryn at 7:16 AM on February 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

I don't want to moderate the thread too much, but I think it'd be helpful to clarify that he has no intention of bringing any of this up or telling anyone at the Navy that the Navy diet is unhealthy. He has lifelong friends who are in the Navy and he is at least somewhat familar with the kinds of things he is going to have available.

He is very private about his eating choices and likes to say he is "not an asshole vegan", he doesn't think a thing of coming to my restaruant and seeing me eat a big ol rare tuna steak. I am more than sure he can cobble together healthy meals where ever he is stationed. I got this discussion going off on the wrong foot in seeming to imply that vegan was the only healthy option. I just want to make sure that he has the most comfortable acclimation to a very different diet possible.
posted by stormygrey at 7:25 AM on February 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

I just want to make sure that he has the most comfortable acclimation to a very different diet possible.

That's very sweet, but boot camp is not about anyone's comfort. It's not like he'll be the only one there fighting to survive. That's kind of the point. I think the best thing he can do is get a little info about what his meals might look like, try things he's particularly nervous abuot, and then just get there and go with the flow. I think he'll find the whole experience will put the food thing low on the list of things he'll be struggling to deal with.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:33 AM on February 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

When I stopped being a vegetarian, it took me about three weeks to get over the GI issues. The only thing that helps is going through it. Your SO's system simply is not ready for any amount of things that are in and around meat and processed foods.

It will absolutely be possible to be a vegetarian in the Navy (largely depending on what he'll be doing -- shipboard duty will make it more difficult, but still not impossible). I knew a Marine who was as strict a vegan as she could be, but accepted that sometimes she had to eat stuff that she didn't feel was ethically proper. She didn't feel that killing people was ethically proper, either, but she saw the need for it at times.
posted by Etrigan at 7:54 AM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree 100% with TPS - I come from a Navy family and I've had friends stationed in Iraq who had to choose between 5-year-old MREs that did not agree with them or pop tarts (they picked the pop tarts). Your SO will adapt or he won't.

At boot camp he will generally be eating at the galley, which is similar to the school cafeteria. It's not going to be a lot of frozen foods, there will definitely be salad and other vegetable/fruit, but it's not going to be vegan - if he wants to avoid meat protein, he's really going to need the eggs and the milk. People do make it through bootcamp as a vegetarian - it's apparantly a bit easier afterwards. I would definitely start eating a small amount of eggs and drinking milk ASAP.

If he doesn't want to avoid meat protein, I would just start with a small amount of animal protein and carbohydrates (bread, cereals) at every meal and build up.
posted by muddgirl at 8:01 AM on February 2, 2012

Cereal is a great starting point. Work in more milkfat over a few weeks, starting from skim. Pick a very high-fiber brand (kashi) to absorb gut fat as his system gets accustomed to it
posted by MangyCarface at 8:05 AM on February 2, 2012

I am a whole food person myself and was about to go into the military, so I have researched this issue a bit.

First, there is no way to healthily adapt to crap processed food. But since he is going to be so stressed, pressed for time (5 minutes per meal) and physically active, his animal brain will make him eat everything in front of his face. He won't have time to think or care about his gut distress.

If he can, he should always get SOME green material and fiber, because those will mitigate the systemic inflammation that white flour will cause. Potatos, corn, rice, and oatmeal are MUCH better than wheat, for a "clean" system like his.

He should start eating *very* small amounts of milk, eggs and meat right now. He will want time for digestive enzymes and immune reponses to upregulate.

How tall is he? Based on his BMI, he might be considered obese at 200 lbs, in which case they will give him reduced rations...

I DID hear that a way to get extra time and better access to food is to volunteer for kitchen duty. He might be able to be more picky then.
posted by blargerz at 8:58 AM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

A typical meal is half a cabbage, a cup of lima beans, an onion, some garlic, a tomato, and some broccoli stirfried up with a tablespoon of olive oil.

He is used to digesting a load of stuff that would be hell for a lot of people to digest - I get bloated just reading that list - half a cabbage, broccoli, onion and beans all in the same meal. His body did not start out thinking that amount of vegetable fibre was easy to digest - it got trained to do that.

So you have to reverse some of the training and gradually introduce some more starch and fat and reduce the "roughage". The main problems at his parents were probably that he was all ready to digest all that fibre and got starch, fat and E numbers instead for a couple of days...but if he re-introduces some fat, starch and eggs/milk gradually his GI tract should be able to adjust.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:03 AM on February 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

Whole foods vegan here. I think he's biggest problem will be constipation rather than pain. As koahiatamadl said, your partner is already used to doing all kinds of digestion. But the foods he is transitioning to will likely stop him up bigtime--meat, dairy and processed foods are all known to bind you up like crazy. I'd travel with some kind of laxative maybe. Besides that and bloating, I wonder if he might feel lethargic going from healthy, whole foods to heavier crap. Make sure he drinks tons of water to keep his system moving.
posted by Rudy Gerner at 9:55 AM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

What will be most difficult adapting back from the diet that you described will be readjusting to oils/fats, meat, salt, and sugar; in that order. Work his way up to the Navy classic Shit on a Shingle (SOS) and he'll be good to go.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:48 AM on February 2, 2012

Has he seen a doctor about possible GI issues and/or allergies? Eating some eggrolls and white bread shouldn't cause so much distress to a healthy person.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:16 AM on February 2, 2012

I went through Boot back in the early 90's so I can't tell you what it is like now but back then you have very little control of what is available to you. You ate what was available at the galley or you did not eat. At that time they did offer fresh fruits and vegetables at a salad bar area but all meals were prepared around a protein. I am not sure how they do it today but my guess is that fresh fruit and vegetables will be available to your SO at meal times and some sort of vegetarian option will be available at the hot food line. So it will be possible to get three meals a day with vegetarian options. He may want to look into eating 3 slightly larger meals a day and work in some oils, fat and starches.

Also he should be aware that his access to a bathroom will be totally at the discretion of someone with more important things to worry about. So the ability to hold it is also important.

In the military you learn to never pass up a chance to eat, poop or sleep and sometimes to do all three at the same time.

Good luck to your SO
posted by The Violet Cypher at 11:49 AM on February 2, 2012

FWIW, my boyfriend went from strict vegan to Big Macs just fine over the course of a week. It's likely he won't have any problems at all.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 12:10 AM on February 3, 2012

The thing I'd worry about here is he'll be eating a hell of a lot less fiber than he's used to. If he could bring some fiber supplements or metamucil or whatever along with him, just in case, that might be a wise idea.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:16 PM on February 4, 2012

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