The Army’s got a weight problem.
New recruits keep getting fatter. With obesity rates in the U.S. at an all time high, more applicants to the military are rejected for being overweight than for any other reason. It’s estimated that each 1% rise in civilian weight and body fat reduces military eligibility by 850,000 men and 1.3 million women. The number of overweight would-be soldiers is so large that the Army has recently had to relax its physical standards to help make its recruitment goals.
The new, laxer standards give recruits a few extra chances to qualify.
First an enlistee’s weight is checked against newly plumped-up height and weight tables. The allowable maximum weight for a 5’9″ man is now as high as 186 lbs., and 146 lbs. for a 5’3″ woman. About one in five new recruits is over the regulation weight, and half will fail the entry-level physical fitness test consisting of one minute of push-ups, one minute of sit-ups, and a 1-mile run.
The Army hates to let one get away; when a recruit fails to make the weight cut, they can get a second chance to enlist if their body mass index passes muster. Body fat can be up to a rather generous 26 percent for men and 36 percent for women. And if they need a little more help, new rules allow female recruits to use neck and arm circumference and leave their waist measurements out of body fat calculations.
And if they still can’t qualify, the Army has a new waiver program that gives overweight recruits a year to slim down before they’re kicked out.
According to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, obesity rates among military personnel have tripled in the last decade. Fully a third of the Army is now out of compliance with weight standards.
The extra weight can be a real career killer. Overweight soldiers can’t be promoted or attend military training school, and each year a few thousand are discharged when they don’t shed the pounds. Last year Army Times reported on the rampant use of diet pills, laxatives, and liposuction undertaken by soldiers so they can maintain their careers. And the problem is not limited to the Army—all five military branches saw similar increases over the past eight years, led by the Air Force, with 7.2 percent of its ranks considered overweight or obese.
Still, it’s an all-volunteer military, and you have to give the people what they want. Mess halls have abandoned the chow line for something closer to a shopping mall food court. The Army’s food program dictates that breakfast include made-to-order eggs, three types of bread, three types of meat, six kinds of cereal, no fewer than one potato dish, and at least one pastry. Lunch and dinner bring at least two hot entrees with legally mandated sauce or gravy, plus two short-order entrees chosen from items like pizza and fried chicken; a deli bar featuring three types of meat; a grill with four items like hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches; french fries, onion rings, assorted chips and pretzels, and at least four desserts. Beyond the all-you-can-eat mess halls, there are vending machines in the barracks and fast-food outlets like Taco Bell and KFC right on the base. And then there’s the chocolate milk. Marines get it at every meal—it’s a Corps regulation.
Certainly nobody could begrudge culinary comforts for members of our armed forces.
But in the interest of whipping soldiers into shape for duty, all branches of the military are revamping their nutrition standards for the first time in 20 years. The Pentagon, with an assist from the First Lady of Nutrition Michelle Obama, will be bringing more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat entrées to all 1,100 service member dining halls.
Department of Defense officials describe the obesity trend as a national security problem. They see us raising kids who are stuffed with soda and fast food and whiling away the hours in front of video games and computer screens, and worry that we could end up with entire generations that might never attain the fitness necessary for military service.
Obviously this is not just a military problem, but a problem for all of us.