Obesity Threatens US Military Readiness

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A new Perspective published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior outlines the research and practices needed to combat the US obesity epidemic and its impact on military readiness

Obesity is recognized as a public health crisis with serious medical and economic effects, but a Perspective in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, published by Elsevier, outlines how obesity’s consequences also impact the US military.

“This is a complex problem that has a deep impact on national security by limiting the number of available recruits, decreasing re-enlistment candidacy, and potentially reducing mission readiness,” states corresponding author Sara Police, Ph.D., Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences, University of Kentucky College of Medicine, Lexington, KY, USA.” Additional, relevant issues include the changing demographics of the military and food insecurity among military families.”

When the National School Lunch Program was enacted in 1946 to combat malnutrition among World War II military recruits, the link between national health and national security was discovered. This occurred at a period when the US food supply had a limited number of calories per day. Malnutrition is no longer a major worry in today’s world. Instead, substantial calorie increases to the food supply, as well as larger portion sizes and other variables, have encouraged weight gain, reducing the number of otherwise eligible men and women for enrollment. 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 numbers have caused military commanders to advocate for improvements in nutritional and dietary habits, including school-based campaigns to eliminate unhealthy food options and increase participation in free and reduced-cost lunch programs. Another option is to provide nutrition education to military personnel.

“Drill sergeants are essential and important leaders in the armed forces for coaching, counseling, mentoring, and training new soldiers,” explains Dr. Police. “This Perspective draws on previous studies illustrating that accurate nutrition information and behavior modeling could strongly influence recruits.”

Co-author Nicole Ruppert, MS, Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences, University of Kentucky College of Medicine, notes, “Other leaders, including commanding officers and non-commissioned officers, also play essential roles in information dissemination and behavior modeling and could have a continued impact on soldiers beyond basic training.”

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.

“Despite efforts by the US government and Department of Defense, obesity continues to impact the military and the risk to national security is great,” stresses Dr. Police. “Research to uncover best practices will consider the increasing diversity within the armed forces, the importance of access to healthy food, and the opportunity to support nutrition education through informed leadership.”

Reference: “The US Military’s Battle With Obesity” by Sara B. Police and Nicole Ruppert, 1 May 2022, Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
DOI: 10.1016/j.jneb.2021.12.003



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