Close your eyes. Picture an average service member.
Their uniform is probably some version of digital camouflage. Their hair is cut short or pulled up above the collar. In your mind’s eye, they snap to attention and present a sharp salute. They are fit, ready and prepared to deploy at a moment’s notice. This is the soldier, sailor, airman or Marine we picture.
But recent information put out by the Defense Health Board suggests a growing percentage of our military ranks aren’t as fit and prepared to fight as we might think.
In fact, nearly 1 in 13 service members could be classified as clinically obese.
Top officials don’t seem particularly worried about present-day readiness, but it’s hard to imagine that a continued upward trend in obesity wouldn’t impact future readiness. As such, top Pentagon officials are working diligently to re-evaluate how services evaluate fitness.
But the real question is how did we get here? How have obesity rates in the military climbed to nearly 8 percent, more than twice what it was 5 years ago?
Pointing the Finger Would Be Easy
Rising obesity rates would be an easy mystery to solve if the same problem wasn’t also plaguing the civilian sector.
We could demonize all of the video game-loving millennials and accuse them of weight-gaining laziness.
We could point our fingers at unit-sponsored potlucks and bake sales.
Or we could vilify the chow hall and demand they stop selling hamburgers and french fries.
But the truth is, while all of these things are factors, the true culprit lies in America’s relationship with food.
America: The Land of Cheap and Plenty
We live in the land of cheap and plenty.
Big portions are like victory banners shouting our triumph over food shortages faced by those who lived through the Great Depression.
We live our lives on an advertising battlefield, hunted by big name food manufacturers and distributors out to improve their bottom line. They offer us the flame-broiled burgers, a bucket of soda and a big slice of American apple pie, all for $5 or less. They play into our self-realized weaknesses and pitch low-calorie, nonfat chocolate bars and cheese-covered baked potato crisps.
Our children (and future service members) are inundated with sugary cereal commercials and foods that are more toys than they are nutrition.
Even the fittest among us are targets for sugar-laced energy drinks and high-calorie protein packs. We have entire TV networks dedicated to decadent foods. We aren’t just in love with food, as a country, we are completely OBSESSED.
How We Got Here Is No Great Mystery
With nearly 2 in every 3 Americans classified as overweight or obese, the perpetual battle of the bulge has been a slow, simmering conflict in our country for the past half century. It is a battle that has made the real-life and devastating effects of heart disease and diabetes commonplace.
Given that the volunteers for our Armed Forces are pulled from our population at large, that they have learned to eat in a surreal world of corn, wheat and soybean subsidies, is it any surprise that this issue made its way into the ranks?
How we got here is common knowledge: lack of exercise, too much stress and highly-processed, highly-addictive foods.
We expect our service members to be a breed apart, to set the standard, to walk the fine line and stand at the ready to defend our nation. And yet, they must feed themselves from the same collective American table, so to speak.
When was the last time you saw a commercial for fruit that wasn’t tied to a bottle of juice?
Where is the Hollywood hunk giving face time to a head of broccoli?
Better yet, when was the last time you or anyone you know took a nutrition class?
Certainly service members are exposed to some kind of nutritional training, but a 2-hour session can hardly undo the programming instilled by a childhood of bad-eating habits.
I am sure that the DoD will take steps to make sure those currently serving better understand the implications of a poor diet. We may see it reflected in the commercial food services offered on post. We may even see food addiction treated in the same manner as drug or alcohol abuse.
But in truth, this will only be a stop-gap for those already in uniform.
If we want to see obesity rates decline, both in our neighborhoods and our military services, we have to reinvent our relationship with food. If we don’t, the consequences to our nation, our military and our waistlines will only continue to grow.