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Obesity poses serious threat to US military readiness, nutritionists warn

The US Army outside of the Lincoln Memorial

Obesity poses a serious threat to the readiness of the US military, a team of nutritionists warn in a new study.

Published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, researchers from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine released a study this week which outlined the consequences of increasing rates of obesity in the US and how it could impact the country’s military readiness.

“This is a complex problem that has a deep impact on national security by limiting the number of available recruits, decreasing re-enlistment candidacy, and potentially reducing mission readiness,” one of the study’s authors Sara Police, Ph.D., Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences at the university, said in a statement.

“Additional, relevant issues include the changing demographics of the military and food insecurity among military families,” she added.

The correlation between the US population’s health and national security was first identified in 1946 when the National School Lunch Program was passed to tackle malnutrition among military recruits of World War Two. At the time, the nation’s eating habits were characterized by limited calorie intake per day due to the available US food supply which was impacted by the war. According to the university media release, dramatic calories enrichments and increased portion sizes, among other factors, were introduced into the US’s food supply to promote weight gain.

Since 1960, the rate of eligible military recruits who exceeded the body fat standards has doubled for men and tripled for women, prompting military leaders to call for changes to nutrition and dietary patterns, including the introduction of more affordable and healthier options in schools and nutrition education within the armed forces.

“Drill sergeants are essential and important leaders in the armed forces for coaching, counseling, mentoring, and training new soldiers. This perspective draws on previous studies illustrating that accurate nutrition information and behavior modeling could strongly influence recruits,” explained Police.

“Other leaders, including commanding officers and noncommissioned officers, also play essential roles in information dissemination and behavior modeling and could have a continued impact on soldiers beyond basic training,” said one of the study’s co-authors Nicole Ruppert.

Today’s basic training regiments include more women and people of racial/ethnic minority groups, the statement noted, adding that these are groups which tend to experience a higher rate of obesity and food insecurity.

“Unreliable access to healthy food can lead to obesity as well as anxiety and other mental health issues, which further threaten military retention and mission readiness,” the statement read.

“Despite efforts by the US government and Department of Defense, obesity continues to impact the military and the risk to national security is great,” said Police.

“Research to uncover best practices will consider the increasing diversity within the armed forces, the importance of access to healthy food, and the opportunity to support nutrition education through informed leadership.”

Around 40 percent of adults and 18 percent of children in the US suffer from obesity, the research stated, citing the National Center for Health Statistics’ findings from 2016.

According to IBISWorld, the world’s largest industry information publisher, between 2017 and 2022 the adult obesity rate in the US grew by 1.8 percent annually to an estimated 33 in 100 people who suffer from obesity.

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