Too fat to fight: Is childhood obesity a national security threat?

"Too fat to fight," a new study by former Pentagon military chiefs, says school junk food and childhood obesity are a national security threat -- with more than a quarter of 17- to 24-year-old Americans too heavy to join the military if they wanted to.

"Too Fat to Fight," a new report by former military leaders, points to junk food and childhood obesity as a national security threat. A Coca-Cola bottle is seen with other beverages in New York where a recent ban on supersize drinks has caused debate about what's most to blame for the nation's obesity epidemic.

More than 90,000 tons of junk food are being sold in American schools every year, is more than the weight of the aircraft carrier Midway. And that, warns a new study released today by a group of America’s retired military leaders, is a threat to national security.

The group called on Congress to take immediate steps to support initiatives to remove junk food and high-calorie drinks from schools, denouncing the availability of high sugar, salt, and fat snack foods in schools as more to blame for obesity than lack of physical activity.

These former leaders now command the group Mission Readiness, a national security organization of more than 300 retired admirals and generals and other senior military leader, that has classified childhood obesity as “a threat to national security.”

According to the Army’s Accessions Command, responsible for recruiting and the initial training of new Army recruits, “over 27 percent of all Americans 17 to 24 years of age – over nine million young men and women – are too heavy to join the military if they want to do so.”

Whether or not you are interested in your child growing up to serve in a military branch, those are some astonishing numbers.

These former military leaders – including Richard Myers, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ,and James M. Loy, former Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security – called today for school districts to limit the sale of junk food and for national legislation to enforce those limits and to fund better school lunch options that are more appealing while still being nutritious.

“This is not a spectator sport. It’s a team sport, a contact sport and we need parents on the team, but the reality is that kids are getting 40-50% of their calories in school daily,” Charles E. Milam, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy said at the organization’s release of the report in Washington today.

 “We are working with the National PTA because removing the junk food from our schools should be part of comprehensive action, involving parents, school and communities, to help children make healthy food choices,” said David Carrier, spokesman for Mission Readiness.

This group takes the approach that lack of exercise is not the primary influence in childhood obesity, and the report cites a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Report:  “It also turns out that lack of exercise is not the primary culprit. Although children and adults exercise less than they should, exercise patterns have not changed dramatically in recent decades while obesity patterns have. What has changed in recent years is the availability and lower prices of food products that are high in sugar, fat, and salt and the increased pressures on families’ time. Over the past two decades, Americans have increased their daily calorie intake by 250 to 300 calories, with approximately half of the additional calories coming from sugar-sweetened drinks.”

Mission: Readiness spent the past two years concentrating on the issue of how childhood obesity is affecting the military in its state of readiness to fight and the cost of medical insurance and preparedness initiatives that have had to be expanded to fit the needs of less fit military recruits.

According to today’s report by Mission Readiness: “Every year, the military discharges over 1,200 first-term enlistees before their contracts are up because of weight problems; the military must then recruit and train their replacements at a cost of $50,000 for each man or woman, thus spending more than $60 million a year.”

According to Mr. Carrier, the Department of Defense spends an estimated $1.1 billion per year for medical care associated with excess fat and obesity.

The report also maps the problem states; and my state, Virginia, is right up there in the mix. The report shows that over a 10-year period, the number of states with 40 percent or more of their young adults who were overweight or obese went from one to 39.

The National PTA, put out a flyer on how parents can get into the loop on school nutrition which suggests: Make sure you know how healthy your school’s environment is and what needs to be improved. Visit the school, talk to the principal, and work with your PTA, school administrators and food service directors to find out: What are kids eating when they’re at school? Is junk food readily available? How much time is provided for physical activity? What can be done to make your school environment healthier?

The flyer also tells parents to find out if there is an existing group working to address nutrition and/or physical activity issues. AND, While policies are being developed at the district level, it suggests working with your PTA to develop a wellness committee for your own school.

I am taking on the final piece of advice offered by the National PTA which is “Spread the Word.” While some might take offense at more people on the parenting dogpile, advising and telling us our kids are facing fit or fat choices, I think there is strength in numbers. 

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As Cartoonist William Rostler once said, “You won't find a solution by saying there is no problem.” Of course just saying it won’t go far if we don’t exercise and flex those parenting muscles at the same time. Only then will we be able to report that it's "mission accomplished."

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