Is The U.S. Military Too Soft On Fat?

It’s not just military retirees and veterans who are packing on the pounds. At a policy summit Wednesday, health and military experts said the obesity epidemic has become a significant threat to national security as the waistlines of military enlistees are expanding. Overweight and obese enlistees and soldiers are making it harder for recruiters to find physically fit candidates for military service.

A 2010 report found that “every year the military discharges over 1,200 first-term enlistees before their contracts are up because of weight problems.” The cost to to taxpayers of this turnover is estimated at around $60 million a year.

“You have to be fit to fight,” said Col. Heidi Warrington. “It used to be, the day you came into the Army you had to pass your fitness test or you couldn’t join the military.” Col. Warrington, the chief nurse executive for the U.S. Army Public Health Command, said that every branch of the armed forces has a limit for body fat, but the military now provides waivers, probation periods and secondary screenings to enlistees who exceed it.

But today, some enlistees are so overweight “they don’t even have to meet the standard until their first true duty station, which means they’ve already gone to basic and their advanced individual training,” Warrington said.

“The military is a microcosm of a larger problem,” said Marian Tanofsky-Kraff, a professor at the Uniformed Services University who studies eating disorders. “It’s a neat place [to be]. Because of the controlled health care system, we have broad opportunities to do science and go in there and have data that’s available. I think it’s a really wonderful place to start to understand how we can intervene early.”

Which means maybe the rest of us won’t have to enlist to learn how to control our own weight.