Obesity in the military nearly tripled in the past 10 years, a problem so big it poses a risk to national security.
First Lady Michelle Obama, who champions healthy eating and fitness programs for children, announced a new obesity campaign Friday to revamp nutritional standards across all military branches for the first time in 20 years.
Military leaders know it's not just a diet issue, it's not just a health issue. This is truly a national security issue, she said, according to Reuters. This isn't just a drop in the bucket - this is really a big splash.
The changes will bring more fruits, vegetables and whole grains to over 1.45 million troops daily. Simply put, this is America's entire military once again stepping forward to lead by example, she said.
Obesity has become a growing problem throughout the military in the last decade. Between 1998 and 2002, military service members diagnosed as overweight or obese remained steady at approximately 25,000, according to a Department of Defense report. Starting in 2003, the number increased to 34,489 and by 2010, the last year numbers were available, the military defined 88,186 service members as overweight or obese.
The obesity trend coincides with the growing waistline of civilians and is leaving the military with a much smaller pool of acceptable recruits. The average weight of an American man is 194 pounds according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same height (5 feet 9 inches), the Army accepts new enlistees be a slimmer 186 pounds.
[Obesity] is a critical long-term challenge, for not only the military, but for the nation, Dr. Curtis Gilroy, director of accession policy in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense told ABC News. We're talking about national health here, which is a significant issue for this country.
Obesity in the military is a fiscal problem as well. Each year, the military discharges 1,200 first-term enlistees before their contracts expire due to weight problems, according to a report released by Mission: Readiness. The nonprofit organization is run by retired senior military leaders and aims to alleviate the problem of overweight recruits. Each discharge costs the military $50,000 to recruit and train a replacement, costing the military more than $60 million per year.
The Department of Defense considers obesity not only a national problem, but a national security issue, Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told the Los Angeles Times. About a quarter of entry-level candidates are too overweight to actually either enter the military or sustain themselves through the first enlistment.
The military is turning away more people than ever. Between 1995 and 2008, 140,000 potential recruits failed their military entrance physicals due to being overweight- a 70 percent increase over the previous 13 years, according to ABC News. Recruits who fail the physical test are allowed to receive a waiver and still enlist through the Assessment of Recruit Motivation and Strength, known as ARMS, according to Slate.com.
In order to pass the ARMS, recruits must complete a modified step test, which requires them to step on and off of a low platform 120 times per minute. After, they must complete a certain number of pushups in one minute - 15 for men, four for women. If they pass, they are enlisted, but must make and maintain the proper weight for their height within one year.
Overweight service members can be discharged, even after they enter the military. Personnel are required to take a physical every six months, and those above the maximum body-fat percentage for their age are placed in a weight control program, during which time they are ineligible to be promoted or re-enlist. If progress is not made, the military can begin discharge proceedings.
Obesity is increasing at the national and state levels. No states currently have an obesity rate of less than 20 percent. In 1990, no state had an obesity rate of more than 15 percent. This increase is going to take time to reverse, and the hard work needs to start now, Lt. Gen. Norman Seip, a retired Air Force officer, told ABC News.
It's taken us years to get to where we are, and it's gonna take years to get us back. he said.