Obese Americans may pose a national security threat

Less than six months after taking office in January last year, President Trump began weighing the idea of a “massive troop surge” in Afghanistan — which senior military advisers have insisted is the answer to ending 16 years of war in the embattled country. By August, he had more or less signed onto the idea.

In a televised speech in front of troops in Virginia in August, Trump revealed that his initial reaction to the proposal was to do the opposite and “pull out,” but that he had changed his mind. Steering clear of specifying an exact number of troops, he assured the military personnel present that, “In the end, we will win.”

This month, a report from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning public policy think tank, has revealed a major hitch in his plan: More than 70 percent of military-age Americans aren’t qualified to serve. To put that number in context, this means that a staggering 24 million of the 34 million 17- to 24-year-olds in the United States are unfit to serve in the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines. 

It’s a problem that can be whittled down to three leading causes: inadequate education (a high school diploma or equivalent is preferred, though not required, to enlist), criminal backgrounds, and obesity. The last of the three is what has military generals — and one of the report’s authors — most concerned. Thomas Spoehr, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, co-wrote the report with his colleague Bridget Handy. A 36-year army veteran, Spoehr spent time in Missouri running an Army training camp, where he witnessed the front end of new soldiers arriving. 

Even some of the people who made the cut were out of shape — which indicates the level of obesity that disqualifies people from service. “They’re not expecting you to come into the military as a lean, mean, fighting machine,” Spoehr tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The Marines talk about transforming people, and the Army takes pride in that too. So if you’re a little chubby, that’s not going to be a problem. It’s when you get to the point of obesity that the services worry — probably rightly — that you could be a danger to yourself and there’s not enough time for us to get you down to an acceptable weight.”

To be sure, the idea that America is overweight is nothing new. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the number of obese Americans at a staggering 36.5 percent. It’s an epidemic that fuels some of the leading causes of death in the country, like diabetes and heart disease, and costs the U.S. anywhere from $147 billion to $210 billion annually.

Now experts say obesity may pose a national security threat.

In the report, Spoehr offers evidence that a manpower shortage “directly compromises national security,” and that obesity has been exacerbating this shortage for years. As far back as 2010, retired military generals zeroed on this fact, finding 27 percent of Americans “too overweight for military service” and that an average of 15,000 Armed Forces candidates were rejected every year for being obese.

Worst of all, it’s a problem that’s primed to grow — something U.S. Army Recruiting Command Major General Allen Batschelet predicted to CNN in 2015. “The obesity issue is the most troubling, because the trend is going in the wrong direction,” said Batschelet. “By 2020, it could be as high as 50 percent, which means only 2 in 10 would qualify to join the Army.”

Each branch of the military uses different measurements to determine who is considered obese, relying on things like body mass index (BMI), and height-based weight measurements. According to the National Institute of Health, Americans with a BMI that ranges from 18.5–24.9 are considered to be of normal weight. People with BMIs that fall between 25 and 29.9 are considered overweight, and those with BMIs greater than 30 are considered obese.

Spoehr says the military’s real concern about obesity is that the epidemic has grown so rapidly. “Since the 1970s, obesity among our youth has tripled,” he says. “The one that [gets] me too is that one in five young people up to age 19 are obese. I think there are vast cities in the United States that are doing much poorer than we think. Everyone has this image of a skinny little elementary school kid, and that is not what’s going on in America anymore.”

Experts continue to forecast that the problem will get worse. A 2011 study from the medical journal The Lancet suggested that there could be an additional 65 million obese Americans by 2030. Harvard researchers have looked closely at the causes of obesity, and specifically called out unhealthy processed foods, sugary drinks, lack of sleep, and lack of exercise.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, the federal government focused on curbing these trends, launching an entire task force on childhood obesity. First lady Michelle Obama augmented this with an initiative called “Let’s Move!” aimed at getting kids to exercise and eat healthier lunches. Both were discontinued when President Trump took office, with no sign that new programs will be enacted.

The president himself has been deemed overweight by his physician, and it seems unlikely that he will make individual health a focus of his administration. If it doesn’t, this study suggests there will be major negative implications. “This is an alarming situation that threatens the country’s fundamental national security,” the authors write. “If this trend continues, it is inevitable that the U.S. military will suffer from a lack of manpower. A manpower shortage in the United States Armed Forces directly compromises national security.”

The report concludes with specific directives for Trump and his administration to take steps to ameliorate the issue. Among the recommendations is to “promptly appoint leading influential role models to serve as chairmen and members of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, and direct them to develop a plan with specific outcomes to reverse the downhill fitness trend.”

Whether or not Trump chooses to address the issue, Spoehr hopes that people understand the gravity of America’s obesity problem. “It’s not just a ‘Hey, we’re not going to have enough people for the military’ thing. I mean, that is my big concern,” Spoehr says. “But it’s a national crisis [on] its own merit.”

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