The Military Has Gotten No Exemption from Obesity

Military service in the U.S. has mostly dealt with obesity in a pretty simple way. Keep it out has been the overarching strategy. Every branch of service has different standards, but the fact is that obesity disqualifies many otherwise eligible recruits. For example, a male of average height (5’9″) cannot meet U.S. Army height and weight standards for enlisting if their body mass index is 26. Even so, the military has gotten no exemption from obesity.

Because nearly three quarters of the U.S. population lives with overweight or obesity, the keep it out strategy means that the services cannot meet their recruiting goals. On top of that, it means that a growing number of service members don’t meet the standards to stay in.

New research tells us that overweight and obesity are highly prevalent in U.S. military service members – affecting 70% of members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

A Substantial Burden of Disease

Joseph Knapik and colleagues studied medical surveillance records from a stratified random sample of 26,177 members of all four service branches.  They found that only 30% of this sample had a BMI below the threshold of overweight. BMI in the range of obesity was present for 17%. For BMI in the range of overweight that falls short of obesity, the prevalence was 53%.

Despite the fact that the U.S. military only accepts healthy individuals for service, Knapik found a substantial burden of disease associated with obesity in their sample. Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, sleep apnea, liver disease, osteoarthritis, and plantar fasciitis were all more than doubled in service members with obesity.

The authors conclude that  overweight and obesity are increasing the medical burden on the military and making the military less ready for deployments and conflicts – especially because only healthy military service members can deploy to areas of conflict.

Keep It Out Clearly Is Not Working

Obviously, the keep it out strategy is not working. Nor will the strategy these authors recommend – nutrition education – likely move the needle on a trend that is undermining the health of military service members. Preaching and teaching about nutrition has not done it for civilian populations. The military has no exemption from the forces that are driving obesity, which go well beyond basic concepts of nutrition.

Just as we need more effective strategies for treating and preventing obesity in the population, the military needs it just as much. Maybe even more. Eat less and move more is not working. Not even in the military.

Click here for the paper by Knapik et al, here, here, and here for further perspective.

Soldiers, photograph by USAF SSgt Maria J. Lorente / Wikimedia Commons

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December x, 2023