Editorial: The expanding military

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The widening girth is becoming a huge problem for the military, but treating it as health problem is a part of the solution

Obese Soldier

For years, the Military has struggled with a growing weight problem. Gone are the days in which the elite force is lean and mean and ready to go to war. A good portion of the article centers on the Navy, but it touches on the other services.

I decided to write this post when I read the New York Times article entitled “Trouble for the Pentagon: The troops are packing on the pounds.” The article quotes data from a study that the Navy is now 22% obese. The rest of the services range from 9-20% with the Marines being the most fit at 9%. If this statistic is true, essentially one in five military service members are obese. I do not doubt that this is correct and this news article seems to be well written, but it misses many significant reasons why the Military is missing the mark.

So, why does the military care? Obesity is not only a health concern, for the military, it is a marker of fitness for duty and readiness to deploy. Obese and overweight service members are more likely to have health issues that limit their ability to deploy or to complete a 20 year career. Obese and overweight service members are more likely to become injured and to require surgical repair of said injuries. Both of which create limitations and availability of service members to perform their jobs.

Obesity - Causes and Effects
Obesity – Causes and Effects

In an attempt to reverse this trend, the military has lengthened fitness center and gym operations to make it more convenient for Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines to work out. The military has also created wellness centers to provide education and body fat testing for service members. These changes have not appeared to make an impact on the obesity rate because it continues to climb. This trend concerns both political and military leaders because it does not appear to be reducing the rate.

In the article, the writer points to the fact that the rate of obesity in the military appeared to increase as the obesity rate increased within the United States. In fact, the rate of obesity in the military is far less than the obesity rate within the United States. The increased obesity rate in the civilian sector is likely due to the fact that the civilian sector is far more sedentary than the military. Most of the military awakens in the morning and does physical training (PT) before work

Obesity. Tape Test!

So, what is the problem? The problem with obesity in the military is the mixed messages being sent. For years, the military has viewed obesity as a willpower issue. The problem is that obesity is a health condition and some people are genetically predisposed. The military is ushered overweight individuals out of the military because they felt that obesity was related to a weakness in a character flaw. The truth could not be further from this misconception.

Old solutions die hard. The military, in the past, vilified those who faile dot make weight. They refused to give soldiers awards they earned and they often punish those who can’t make weight which compounds the problem. The punishment was often extra duties and more exercise. If a slim waist line is truely made in the kitchen, it is clear that the military focus is way off the mark.

So, what can you learn from this article that may help you lose weight?

Let’s start off with a list of things that this article missed:

  1. Obesity the Disease: Obesity is a disease and the military must approach it’s like a disease and get those that are overweight help. Help is more than exercise or cooking tips. It is also behavior health and medical care.
  2. Healthy eating: The military needs to set an example by removing all fast food establishments from military posts. At a minimum, they need to add more healthy options outside of Subway.
  3. The chow hall: The military needs to revamp the dining facilities a.k.a. the chow hall. this needs to be done both in the United States and overseas and both in garrison and deployed. Nearly every chow hall has hotdogs, hamburgers, French fries, and grilled cheeses. None of these are healthy foods and are terrible decisions. The article does describe food labels that are color-coded. This would be a good start but there needs to be more than one healthy option available.
  4. Nutrition bars: Most nutrition bars are just dressed up candy bars. Many of them have far too much sugar and far too little fiber to be of any health significance. Those that have fiber use artificial fibers and many of them have the sugar replaced with sugar alcohols. Although the source of calories is important, sugar alcohols can still lead to obesity.
  5. Fruits and vegetables: the military needs to encourage servicemembers to eat more fruits and vegetables. Of particular importance, are the green, non-carbohydrate vegetables that help you keep full longer.
  6. Sleep: The military needs to encourage healthy sleep habits. Instead of waking up at 5 AM to exercise, they need to encourage people to get enough sleep and make exercise the part of all officers and enlisted service members. Currently, usually, only enlisted soldiers do group PT.
  7. Alcohol and sweetened beverages: Encourage soldiers to reduce their alcohol and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption. Both of these are empty calories and have no place in a healthy lifestyle.
  8. Exercise: encourage families to exercise together as a part of the workday. In Germany, they have community marches or Volks Marches. Involving family makes it fun and will encourage healthy lifestyles.

The bottom line: The obesity trend mirrors the growth of American civilian waistlines, but was delayed by a few years. It is high time for the military to take action. It needs to start by destigmatizing weight. By destigmatizing weight loss and encouraging healthy choices, the military will build healthier communities that are ready when it’s time to go to war.

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About the Author

I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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