Discipline Doesn’t Prevent Obesity in the Military

We sometimes hear from people who should know better that obesity results from a failure of self-discipline. It’s a conviction that’s hard to shake. But a new study in Obesity finds a rising rate of obesity in one of the most highly disciplined populations in the world: the U.S. military. Clearly, discipline does not protect people from the rising risk of obesity.

Toni Rush and colleagues analyzed data from 42,200 individuals in the Millenium Cohort Study between 2001 and 2008. Over that seven-year period, they found that obesity rates for active duty personnel doubled from 10% to 20%. For these people, the development of obesity cuts military careers short and costs the military $60 million per year.

The impact grows even further when soldiers move on to become veterans. Obesity prevalence grew from 14% in 2001 to 32% in 2008 among veterans. PTSD, depression, and other mental health conditions are significantly associated with obesity in both active duty personnel and veterans. In a companion commentary, Karl Friedl and Van Hubbard note:

One of the most important questions still to be answered from the MCS is the question of change with age and especially with leaving the service. Is obesity at retirement a “service-connected disability” that does not occur in nonmilitary peers? This characterization has potentially important implications for veterans, as well as for the Veterans Administration, where compensation claims have already skyrocketed and more effective health behavior interventions may be needed.

These new data make it unmistakable. Obesity is not simply a matter of personal discipline or a civilian public health concern. It’s a growing concern that compromises national security and the health of our veterans.

Click here for more from the Obesity Society. Click here for the study and here for the companion commentary.

Uniforms, photograph © tanakawho / flickr

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June 28, 2016