The ramifications of an overweight population—adults, teens, and kids alike—just keep on coming: We know now, for example, that the health effects of being very overweight don’t begin at adulthood; kids suffer plenty by carrying around so many extra pounds.
In an unexpected turn this week, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack went so far as to say that America’s obesity epidemic is hurting not just our health but also the country's security. In a speech in Portland, Maine, Secretary Vilsack said that "we must continue to take action today to ensure that today's young people grow up healthy and strong, or we will see more challenges—everything from soaring health care costs to diminished national security and decreased business competitiveness."
Why the call-out connecting obesity to national security? Because many Americans are simply too overweight to serve in the military. In 2010, Military Readiness, an organization of retired military leaders, released its "Too Fat to Fight" report, citing Department of Defense statistics showing that 75 percent of adults 17 to 24 wouldn't be accepted into any branch of the U.S. military simply because they couldn’t meet the Armed Forces' weight requirement; three-quarters of young adults would exceed that requirement. The organization focuses on getting junk food and sugary drinks out of schools, increasing funding for school lunches, and supporting proven interventions to end childhood obesity.
A 22-year-old, six-foot man who wants to join the Army can't exceed 195 pounds, for example. A five-foot-four woman who's the same age must not weigh more than 147 pounds.
"The military has strict body fat guidelines that are enacted through an initial BMI [body mass index] screen, followed by a body fat measurement confirmation," explains Jacob C. Warren, Ph.D., co-executive director of the Rural Health Research Institute, at Georgia Southern University, in Statesboro, and co-author of the forthcoming Always the Fat Kid: The Truth About the Enduring Effects of Childhood Obesity. "What's alarming is the fact that nearly three out of every four adults aged 20 or over have BMIs that would fail that initial BMI screen. With childhood obesity tripling in the past generation, we are quickly running out of individuals who are even eligible to serve."
So the question quickly becomes a pressing one: Who will join the military to protect the U.S. both domestically and abroad? "This is not smoke and mirrors—it is a hard and honest fact," stresses K. Bryant Smalley, Ph.D., co-executive director of the Rural Health Research Institute and co-author of Always the Fat Kid. "Childhood obesity has reached such a scale that it is impacting each and every one of us—not just the children it so directly affects. Secretary Vilsack's comments highlight just one of the ways in which this epidemic is impacting our entire society."
What do you think would help to reduce childhood obesity? What do you think it would take for this epidemic to generate enough political will to solve it more quickly?
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Lorie A. Parch is a Los Angeles-based writer specializing in health and lifestyle topics. Takepart.com