Is U.S. Nutrition Policy Making the Military (and Recruits) too Fat to Fight?

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The U.S. military has a crisis on its hands, as obesity rates continue to rise, both among existing troops and potential recruits who are too fat to serve.

This year, for the first time since 2005, the Army fell short of its recruitment goal, according to the recent report, “Unhealthy and Unprepared,” by The Council for a Strong America, a group of retired generals and admirals. Obesity was largely to blame. Some 71% of young people between the ages of 17 and 24 fail to qualify for military service, says the report. These alarming numbers raise the disturbing question of whether the U.S. will be able to continue the luxury of maintaining an all-volunteer army in the future.

Another recent study, this one by the Rand Corporation found that some two-thirds of the nation’s active military personnel are overweight or obese. Topping the scale is the Army, with 69.4% of its personnel overweight or obese. But even the trimmest military branch – the Marine Corps – isn’t much better, at 60.9%. These numbers may be misleading, since “obesity” is defined by BMI (body mass index), which does not distinguish between whether extra pounds come fat or muscle—the latter being more likely to be the case in the military. Still, rates of 60-69% are disturbingly high . Since these folks are following the military’s exercise program, we certainly can’t blame them for shirking on physical activity.

It seems, in fact, that the U.S. military diet actually worsens health, according to an Army publication six years ago. Chanel S. Weaver of the U.S. Army Public Health Command wrote, “Even those Soldiers who are actually fit enough to deploy can face challenges in maintaining a healthy weight while serving in the deployed environment.”

In the article, Dr. Theresa Jackson, a public health scientist at the U.S. Army Public Health Command, states, “Literature suggests that fitness decreases and fat mass increases during deployments.” This is an astonishing fact: fitness declines in the military, despite mandated regular exercise.

This paradox could be explained by the growing understanding that exercise plays a relatively minor role in weight loss. “You can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet,” is the new common catchphrase among experts. Instead, the principal factor driving obesity, as the data increasingly show, is poor nutrition.

A look at the Army's nutrition guidelines shows that they emphasize low-fat, high-carbohydrate foods. The Army recommends eating “…high protein, low-fat items such as: fish, beans, whole wheat pasta, egg whites, skim or 1 percent milk, and low-fat yogurt” while avoiding “items such as: fried items, high fat meats, egg yolks, and whole milk.” This guidance comes from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), a policy that has been co-issued by USDA and US-HHS since 1980. The military essentially downloads these guidelines and serves food in mess halls to reflect DGA recommendations.

 The Army advises Egg Whites and even Egg Beaters (fake food) over Whole Eggs even though dietary cholesterol is no longer considered a ‘nutrient of concern.’  (Where are the nutrients in eggs? In the yolks.)

The Army advises Egg Whites and even Egg Beaters (fake food) over Whole Eggs even though dietary cholesterol is no longer considered a ‘nutrient of concern.’ (Where are the nutrients in eggs? In the yolks.)

Ironically, this reliance on the U.S. Guidelines could well be the very reason for the military’s obesity problems. This diet tells the entire U.S. population to eat 50-60% of their calories as carbohydrates, principally grains, and just as a high-grain diet fattens cattle, a large body of government-funded science shows that a high-carbohydrate diet, for most people, is inimical to sustainable weight loss.

The argument that Americans don’t follow the guidelines is not supported by the best available government data on this subject—which demonstrates widespread adherence to the Dietary Guidelines.

Lately, the mainstream press has been taking notice of the obesity problem in the military, particularly the dwindling pool of healthy recruits. Politico recently reported that “health problems are the clearest impediment to military service — especially the alarming number of youngsters who are overweight.” Elaborating on a report called The Looming National Security Crisis, co-author retired Army Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr told Politico, “We all have this image in our mind of this hearty American citizen, scrappy, that can do anything…That image we keep in our heads is no longer accurate.”

A possible way forward is presented in an op-ed published in the Dallas Morning News by Steve Barrons, a retired U.S. Air Force Special Operations Combat Controller with 21 years of experience. Barrons participated in a recent experiment at The Ohio State University on a very low carbohydrate “ketogenic” diet, with transformative results.

Barrons writes, “…as I ate more fat and reduced my intake of sugars and other carbohydrates like grains, I lost weight and became healthier.” He adds, “I've...seen that when a motivated candidate makes a diet change to a low-carb/high-fat way of eating, there is always a change in body composition and improvement in performance.” The experiment in which Barrons participated, called the “Tactical Athlete in Ketosis” study, will soon publish its results.

Let’s hope our military leaders will take a hard look at its nutritional advice and explore all possible options to improve the health of the men and women who serve in uniform and protect our nation.