Obesity is threatening the readiness of US military, a new Perspective in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior claims while also outlining the research and practices needed to combat the US obesity epidemic and its impact on military readiness.
Obesity is a complex problem that has the potential to deeply impact national security by limiting the number of available recruits, decreasing re-enlistment candidacy, and potentially reducing mission readiness.
The connection between the nation’s health and national security was identified in 1946 when the National School Lunch Program was passed to address malnutrition among World War II military recruits. This was at a time when limited calories per day were available in the US food supply. Today, the concern for malnutrition is no longer as pressing. Instead, dramatic calorie enrichments to the food supply and increased portion sizes, among several other factors, have promoted weight gain and consequently reduced the number of otherwise eligible men and women for enlistment. The percentage of eligible recruits who exceed the military’s percent body fat standards has doubled for men and tripled for women since 1960.
These statistics have prompted military leaders to call for changes in nutritional and dietary patterns, including initiatives in schools to remove less healthful food options and increase the use of free and reduced cost lunch programs. Another solution could be nutrition education within the armed services themselves.
The changing demographics of today’s basic training regiments include a greater percentage of women and racial/ethnic groups. These are groups of the population who experience a higher rate of obesity but also higher rates of food insecurity. Unreliable access to healthy food can lead to obesity as well as anxiety and other mental health issues, which further threaten military retention and mission readiness.