The latest national security threat: obesity

Are we becoming a nation too fat to defend ourselves?

It seems incredible, but these are the facts: As of 2005, at least 9 million young adults - 27 percent of all Americans ages 17 to 24 - were too overweight to serve in the military, according to the Army’s analysis of national data. And since then, these high numbers have remained largely unchanged.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show obesity rates among young adults increasing dramatically nationwide. From 1998 to 2008, the number of states reporting that 40 percent or more of young adults are overweight or obese has risen from one to 39.

While other significant factors can keep our youth from joining the military - such as lacking a high school diploma or having a serious criminal record - being overweight or obese has become the leading medical reason recruits are rejected for military service. Since 1995, the proportion of potential recruits who failed their physical exams because of weight issues has increased nearly 70 percent, according to data reported by the Division of Preventive Medicine at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

We consider this problem so serious from a national security perspective that we have joined more than 130 other retired generals, admirals and senior military leaders in calling on Congress to pass new child nutrition legislation.

What children eat and drink during school hours constitutes as much as 40 percent of their daily nutrient intake. Properly managed, the school environment can be instrumental in fostering healthful eating habits among our children.

Researchers from Rice University and the University of Houston noted in the journal Health Affairs in March that increasing participation in federal nutrition programs “may be the most effective tool to use in combating obesity in poor children.”

As a nation, we need to take the next step. Our school districts need the resources to offer our children more vegetables, fruits and whole grains as well as products with less sugar, sodium, fat and calories in school cafeterias and vending machines. Yes, this will mean increasing funding for child nutrition programs. But with our nation spending at least $75 billion a year on medical expenses related to obesity, we think these steps will pay off over the long term.

We urge Congress to pass a robust child nutrition bill that would:

- Get the junk food and remaining high-calorie beverages out of our schools by adopting new standards, based on the latest research, for foods and drinks sold or served in our schools. Standards for school meals are 15 years old. Clearly, they need to be upgraded.

- Support the administration’s proposal of an increase of $1 billion per year for 10 years for child nutrition programs that would improve nutrition standards, upgrade the quality of meals served in schools and enable more children to have access to these programs.

- Develop research-based strategies, implemented through our schools, that help parents and children adopt healthier lifelong eating and exercise habits.

Military concerns about the fitness of our children are not new. When the National School Lunch Act was first passed in 1946, it was seen as a matter of national security. Many of our military leaders recognized that poor nutrition was a significant factor reducing the pool of qualified candidates for service.

Our country is facing another serious health crisis. Obesity rates threaten the overall health of America and the future strength of our military. We must act, as we did after World War II, to ensure that our children can one day defend our country, if need be.

Retired U.S. Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from October 1993 to September 1997. Retired U.S. Army Gen. Hugh Shelton served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from October 1997 to September 2001. Both are on the executive advisory council of Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit organization of retired senior military leaders.

By John M. Shalikashvili and Hugh Shelton

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