Marching on its Stomach

Battle of the Bulge

15% of 17- to 24-year-olds are over the Army’s height-weight standards.
Last year, half of all recruits failed the entry-level physical fitness test consisting of one minute of push-ups, one minute of sit-ups and a 1-mile run.
Is anyone surprised? They’ve been plumped up by fast food and soda and spent their teenage years playing video games.

With an all-volunteer military, you have to give them 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 includes 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 new recruits into shape for duty, the Army is rolling out its new Soldier Athlete initiative at bases where 10-week basic training takes place. It bans soda, cookies, and cake, and limits refined grains and fried food offerings. In their place are beefed-up salad bar offerings, low-fat milk and yogurt, and more fish, fruits, and vegetables. Unfortunately, once basic training is complete, the soldiers are back in mess halls where the sausage gravy flows freely. They’ve completed a total of one hour of nutrition guidance out of  their 754 training hours of coursework.

About a third of everyone in uniform doesn’t meet military height and weight standards, and half of that group qualifies as obese. Overweight troops that can’t shed the pounds can be discharged—a fate that befalls a few thousand every year. In December, Army Times published an exposé of the extreme methods that officers undertake to meet fitness standards so they can maintain their careers—diet pills, laxatives, crash diets, and even liposuction are becoming increasingly common.

Obviously this is not just a military problem, but a national problem. In a press conference, Senator Richard Lugar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and a group of retired generals and admirals warned that the civilian diet could someday pose a threat to homeland security—they see us raising an entire generation that might never attain the fitness necessary for military service.




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