Too Fat to Fight: Obesity Costs the Military a Bundle
Policy + Politics

Too Fat to Fight: Obesity Costs the Military a Bundle

In the classic comedy Stripes, overweight "Ox" Oxenberger, portrayed by John Candy, tells fellow recruits that he joined the Army to lose a few pounds. "I'm gonna walk out of here a lean, mean fighting machine," he declares. And now for a dose of reality, circa 2010. Today, Ox would rank among the 9 million young adults — 27 percent of all Americans ages 17 to 24 — who are too overweight to even join the military in the first place.

It’s a frightening new challenge for this country.

Each year the U.S. military discharges more than 1,200 first-time enlistees before their contracts are up because of weight problems. The cost of recruiting and training all their replacements? A hefty $50,000 per person — or roughly $60 million a year.

The Numbers Behind ‘Too Fat to Fight’
Mission: Readiness is a non-profit group of 130 retired senior military leaders whose recent report claimed that weight problems are the leading medical reason recruits are rejected for military service in this country. This finding has tremendous implications for national security. In written testimony to the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel earlier this year, Clifford L. Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, noted that the eligibility of American youth to serve is "of particular concern."  

"In the past 30 years, childhood obesity has tripled," says Ted Eismeier, a spokesperson for Mission: Readiness. "We're in a situation where so many people coming out of high school are obese or overweight, they don't make the grade."

A "convergence of many trends" has led to obesity being the major disqualifying factor, says Dr. Marc Jacobson, a member of the Obesity Leadership Workgroup of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Among those trends: more indoor entertainment options for young people (electronic games, computers, etc.), more working parents who aren’t around to nudge their kids outdoors, and more fast food or takeout meals that are higher in calories and larger in size. Convergence, indeed. 

The Mission: Readiness report advocates reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. It calls on Congress to adopt new nutrition standards; it also supports President Obama's proposal for $1 billion each year for 10 years to improve the quality of food in schools and make that food available to more children. The report also cites the American Public Health Association's projection that obesity will add nearly $344 billion to the nation's annual health care costs by 2018, and account for more than 21 percent of health care spending.

Numbers related to the costs of obesity to the military are no less alarming. According to a 2007 article in the American Journal of Health Promotion, the Department of Defense spends more than $1.1 billion annually for medical care associated with excess weight and obesity. The tab for work-related absenteeism and “presenteeism” (ill workers who perform substandard work)? More than $105 million.

Fixing the Problem
Nationwide campaigns such as the 5-2-1-0 program from the AAP (five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, two hours or less of screen time, one hour of physical activity daily, and zero sugar-sweetened beverages), as well as "Let's Move," launched earlier this year by Michelle Obama, promote nutrition awareness and physical fitness to schoolchildren. But each military service branch also has programs in place for its active duty personnel, including the Army's MOVE program, the Air Force's DINE/Fit to Fight program, and the Navy's CHOW/Ship Shape initiative.  

Programs for the entire military family include the DOD’s Nutritional Environment Enhancement Team efforts to improve food choices for service people. It puts more healthful choices in vending machines, encourages the consumption of more fruits and vegetables throughout the community, and gives information to members and their families to improve food selections. 

TRICARE, the military’s health care program, has also developed an expanded “Get Fit” website for children. That’s expected to launch soon.

In this difficult economy, the challenges facing the military have implications for the rest of the country. "Where's the money going to come from to take care of all the sick people we're going to have?" says Sandra Hassink, M.D., director of the weight management clinic at the Nemours/Alfred I. Dupont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware. "What’s happening in the military is a reflection of what's been going on for the past 25 years. A calorie imbalance of a couple hundred calories a day on a consistent basis can lead to about 20 pounds weight gain a year. And that energy imbalance is embedded in our culture.

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