Obesity is not only a health crisis for this country as a whole – it's also deeply affecting the military's mission readiness. The majority of young America is unfit to serve in the United States Armed Forces.
Major General Michael Hall (ret.) has watched in alarm as the negative impacts from the rise in obesity overtook the country as he served in the Air Force from 1968-1995. As rates continued to climb, he saw how simultaneously the military itself became less fit and there began to be less viable candidates for a critically important service.
"I think if you go to the overarching issue, 71 percent of our young people are not qualified to serve in the military. That begs the question, 'If you aren't qualified to serve in the military, why? And what else does that keep you from doing because the military is a very broad based workforce,"' Hall said. "Obesity is a significant part of the failure to qualify."
Although finding people able to serve is a struggle for the military, maintaining a fit and ready service is also becoming much more difficult. "Around a sixth of the military itself is obese so this problem doesn't go away even if they were able to get into the military and then the epidemic continues to affect military readiness," Hall explained.
In America's military, obesity in its service members rose 73 percent from 2011 to 2015.
Quite literally, obesity is affecting our national security. When service members are unfit to deploy, there's either a shortage in a unit causing safety concerns or it leads to continuous redeployments for others. Both outcomes impact the health and wellness of service members but also severely impact mission readiness as a whole.
It starts all the way at the beginning. Hall didn't hold back as he addressed the true elephant in the room; the inability for a large portion of America's children to get nutritious meals. "The bottom line is that there are many people in our society that don't have ready access to nutritious meals," he said.
In the 1960s and 1970s, only around 5 to 7 percent of children qualified as obese. Now, that number is around 17 percent, according to the American Psychological Association. Research has demonstrated that socioeconomic status plays a significant part in the rising rates of obesity in America. The CDC found that children within a household that had a higher education level and income had lower rates of obesity.
"It starts with awareness," Hall said. "I think where we are right now is to help the broader population understand that there is a problem and that problem is being exacerbated." It is his hope that communities will begin asking what they can do to tackle this issue and help young people not only develop good nutrition habits, but receive access to it as well – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think we were in crisis before, that crisis has been a battle that over the past few years has stayed static… now we've got significant more challenge facing us," Hall said. "We have to remember that there is a very fundamental societal health and service value associated with nutrition. All the programs put together to improve nutrition are stressed right now and unable to function as they were originally intended."
With COVID-19 causing widespread quarantine-like policies to be put in place, it also means many children are losing their access to more nutritious food. Although states and communities have rallied to develop programs to get food to families in need, more needs to be done.
"I think a big part of this is that this message gets back to Congress, saying, look we are making a lot of choices now about what we support, but let's not forget early childhood nutrition when we make these decisions," Hall explained. "The lifecycle of the cost of obesity in America is huge."
Obesity-related costs in this country skyrocketed to $147 billion in 2008. The Department of Defense spends $1.5 billion a year alone. Those who are active duty and obese are more likely to sustain injuries as well. In many cases, obesity starts with poor nutrition in childhood, leading to habits in adulthood that causes a catastrophic health domino effect. This epidemic is severely impacting the country's health outcomes and its national security.
"I think that helps crystalize people's thinking and understanding that this is a national challenge that also affects military readiness, but is far more than that," Hall implored. "It's important that people step back and look at this as a pandemic, a pandemic of obesity."
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