Many overweight and obese young adults are currently ineligible for U.S. military service which could jeopardize the Armed Forces and national security, according to retired military personnel.
In a report released Tuesday, nearly 200 retired military leaders claimed that 27% of young adults, or at least 9 million 17- to 24-year-olds, are too fat for military service. They called on Congress to take action to reduce the number of vending machines dispensing unhealthy foods in schools.
“Being overweight or obese turns out to be the leading medical reason why applicants fail to qualify for military service,” according to the report, called “Too Fat to Fight.” The authors pointed out that “otherwise excellent recruit prospects, some of them with generations of sterling military service in their family history, are being turned away because they are just too overweight.”
Between 1995 and 2008, the proportion of potential recruits who failed their physicals each year because they were overweight rose nearly 70%, according to Mission: Readiness, a nonpartisan group of retired senior leadership from all armed forces branches. Three-quarters of all young Americans are unable to join the military because they failed to graduate from high school, have criminal records, or are physically unfit.
“Removing the junk food from our schools should be part of comprehensive action that involves parents, schools and communities in helping children make healthy food choices,” Coast Guard Admiral James Loy (ret.) said in a news release. “The bottom line is that the armed services must have a sufficient pool of fit young adults to draw from in order to field enough recruits with the excellent qualifications needed to staff a 21st century military.”
Specifically, retired military leaders call on Congress to:
- Reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act and allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to adopt new nutrition standards that could remove high-calorie, low-nutrition foods from schools
- Support adequate funding to improve the quality of food available in schools
- Deploy proven school-based programs that helping children adopt life-long changes in their eating and exercise habits
“There is evidence to show that intervening during school years, and even earlier, to provide healthful meals along with nutrition education, and simple techniques to motivate children or their children can reduce childhood weight gain,” the report stated.
Lawmakers need to provide meaningful increases in school lunch funding to make meals more nutritious and appetizing, they said.
The CDC and others have called for adoption of the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) guidelines on what foods should be served and sold in schools. Now, Congress needs to give the USDA authority to adopt those standards, the retired leaders said.
To date, nearly half of the states have no nutrition standards for unhealthy foods sold in schools and only one has adopted most of the IOM’s recommendations, they said.
This isn’t the first time military leaders have become involved in a national debate on good nutrition. During World War II, the military rejected roughly 40% of recruits because of poor nutrition. Young military men were almost an inch and a half shorter then compared with today.
At the time, Gen. Lewis Hershey testified on behalf of the National School Lunch Program, which was established in 1946 and helped ensure children had access to healthy school meals.
“The health of our children and our national security are at risk,” the report authors wrote. “America must act decisively.”