Is America’s Obesity Epidemic Harming National Security?

New report from ex-military leaders says we’re raising a generation unfit to fight.
Mission: Readiness, a group of ex-military generals and admirals, is worried that if we don't change what American children are eating, many will be unqualified to enlist in the armed forces when they are older. (Photo: Andrew Rich/Getty Images)
Oct 9, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

“Want to join but need to drop weight. What should I do?”

“Do I have the right build to enlist?”

“Leaving in 10 days and overweight…what’s likely to happen?”

On an online forum run by the U.S. Army, there are pages of questions like these from prospective recruits to active soldiers. Many young Americans struggle to meet the weight guidelines—a body mass index (BMI) of 18 for men and 25 or 26 for women—set by the various armed forces branches.

In fact, out of every 100 young adults interested in enlisting in the military, 25 will be turned away immediately because of substandard physical fitness. And in the general population, three-quarters of adult American males are overweight or obese—the third-highest among major countries—according to the World Health Organization.

In considering the fitness and physical preparedness of our armed forces, these numbers are troubling enough. But to a group of ex-military leaders, the health of today's children—who will become tomorrow's fighting men and women—is even more troubling. Twenty percent of young children are considered obese today—a number that has tripled in the last 30 years.

These and other concerns are written up in a new report, titled "Still Too Fat to Fight," by Mission: Readiness, a nonpartisan coalition of former generals and admirals "calling for smart investments in America's children." The group has recently endorsed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act—the school lunch reform championed by Michelle Obama and passed by Congress in 2010 with bipartisan support—which has received harsh criticism from some conservatives who say it amounts to Big Government controlling Americans' freedom. But Mission: Readiness, calling it a national security issue, is advocating for the government to do even more to curb childhood obesity: remove all junk food from American schools.

"We are working with the National PTA because removing the junk food from our schools should be part of comprehensive action, involving parents, school and communities, to help children make healthy food choices," said Mission: Readiness spokesman David Carrier to the Christian Science Monitor.

Collaboration is the key to transforming the way American kids eat at school, says Charles E. Milam, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy.

'This is not a spectator sport. It's a team sport, a contact sport and we need parents on the team, but the reality is that kids are getting 40-50 percent of their calories in school daily," Milam said at the organization's release of the report last month.

The military spends over $1 billion per year treating weight-related diseases, according to "Still Too Fat to Fight." Andrew Corum, who served as a captain in the Air Force from 2007-2011, says that while he didn't notice many new recruits struggling to achieve the military branch's fitness standards, he did know many who gained weight while on active duty. A few even "found their way out of the Air Force" because they couldn't maintain their fitness.

"This may have been due to the fact that they were stationed in the middle of nowhere—Minot, North Dakota," says Corum, who adds that he rediscovered fitness while in the Air Force. "It also may have been because there was not a big emphasis on consistent and frequent unit [physical training], or the crappy food choices available on base."

Whether by encouraging nutrition and exercise in the various branches or working to reform the way future servicemembers eat as children, former U.S. military leaders agree: The health of the nation's military depends on maintaining the health of our young men and women.

"At the end of the day, it's not our aircrafts, our tanks, our ships or our information technology that keep our nation safe and sound, it's the men and women who wear the uniform and so proudly serve," retired Air Force Lt. Gen. and group spokesman Norman Seip told the Detroit Free Press.