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Event Recap: Combating the Military Obesity Crisis

Event Recap: Combating the Military Obesity Crisis

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On Friday, American Security Project Research Fellow Courtney Manning and ASP Chief Operating Officer Matthew Wallin hosted a public webinar on the results of ASP’s most recent white paper, “Combating Military Obesity: Stigma’s Persistent Impact on Operational Readiness.” The one-hour session reviewed the research underpinning military obesity and provided an opportunity for audience members across the civilian, military, and nonprofit space to ask pressing and urgent questions about the state of the military obesity crisis.

Beginning with an overview of the military recruiting environment, Ms. Manning outlined two avenues to reverse the nearly 50% decline in U.S. military applications between 1977 and 2023: attracting highly qualified applicants and getting willing applicants physically fit enough for active duty service. Increasing propensity to serve includes offering competitive pay and benefits, providing entry-level jobs in highly regarded industries, and promoting military service as a civic duty in schools. These initiatives do not, however, solve the #1 leading disqualifier of military applicants: obesity. If interested individuals do not meet the physical standards for enlistment due to exceeding weight-for-height standards, they are barred from service until they lose weight or receive a waiver that allows them to enlist while overweight. 

Ms. Manning highlighted that while recruitment issues could be solved, short-term solutions to get military personnel through the door can worsen health and readiness down the line. For example, the Future Soldier Preparatory Course was introduced in 2019 to give eligible applicants the chance to lose weight before boot camp in a controlled environment. While over 95% of program participants graduate into active duty by losing 2% of their body weight on average, the unsustainability of crash diets leads obesity rates to skyrocket across the services shortly after enlistment. She urged that more sustainable weight management initiatives are needed to maintain fitness throughout a service member’s entire career, not just before and during boot camp. 

Obesity within the military is a pressing readiness crisis, with an estimated 21% of all active duty service members meeting the clinical standard for obesity. Ms. Manning broke down these numbers to highlight what obesity in the military looks like now and what additional data is needed to form policy prescriptions. According to Ms. Manning, “While it may lead to short-term cost savings, the military’s ‘get tough’ attitude of the past thirty years has only increased the $1.5 billion in annual obesity-related healthcare costs shouldered by taxpayers. It’s obvious that new strategies are needed, and thankfully, the science has caught up to where we have those strategies.”

Resolving the military obesity crisis starts by changing how obesity is identified and treated across the Department of Defense. For 99% of individuals, a BMI recording of 30 indicates that service members need to see a doctor or obesity specialist. Once these service members are evaluated by a medical professional, which involves advanced body composition analysis or a blood test costing as little as $30, they should be allowed to stay in service while being given early interventions such as a diet and exercise routine, heart rate monitoring, blood thinners, or other medical treatments as determined by their doctor. Right now, less than 7% of service members with pre-diabetes indicators are being treated for these conditions; if every service member with pre-diabetes indicators received a referral to a healthcare professional, diabetes rates in the U.S. Armed Forces could decline as much as 56%, saving hundreds of millions in annual healthcare costs.

At the conclusion of her presentation, Ms. Manning emphasized that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to military weight management. Some cases of obesity are genetic, while others are behavioral or hormonal. Most are a combination of factors, and few cases of obesity can be treated with willpower or personal discipline alone. Therefore, ensuring adequate access to medical treatment should come before enforcing administrative sanctions or separating troops for obesity. By looking at the structural factors causing individuals to gain more weight the longer they stay on active duty, the Department of Defense can treat the systemic issues causing weight gain and assist individual service members with getting back into the physical condition they need to be in to properly defend our nation in a national security crisis.