Childhood obesity isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the military. But Mission: Readiness, a D.C.-based organization of retired generals, admirals, and civilian military leaders, is seriously worked up about the epidemic. In "Too Fat to Fight," a new report released on the Hill today, the group says more than 27 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24—that's more than 9 million young men and women—are too overweight to join the military. And it's calling on Congress to do something about it: to get junk food out of schools and to provide more-effective programs for kids to lose weight. "I was overwhelmed by the number," says Mission's Lt. Gen. Norman Seip, who retired from the U.S. Air Force last fall. "We need a force out there that's fit to fight."
The military angle on obesity has come full circle since World War II, when recruits were rejected because of poor nutrition. In 1946, Congress passed the National School Lunch Program to improve the health of young people and to make sure that the military could find healthy recruits. Fast-forward six decades and the problem now is that young people are too fat. "This not only impacts national security," says Seip, "but the nation as a whole."
Seip, who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1974, remembers a childhood filled with exercise and good eating. "I'm an old guy, we grew up with recess and mandatory gym class," he says. "We had hot meals served in the lunchroom, not stuff that's spent all its time in a deep-fry cooker." As NEWSWEEK reported in a cover story on childhood obesity last month, the growth of fast food and wireless technology have contributed to an epidemic of childhood obesity. Rates have tripled among kids ages 12 to 19 since 1980, with one third of America's youth now overweight or obese and almost 10 percent of infants and toddlers dangerously heavy.
For more on this issue, NEWSWEEK's Claudia Kalb talked to First Sgt. Owen Smith, who's in charge of Army recruitment for the Louisville region of Kentucky and southwest Indiana. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Do the findings of the new report resonate?
We do see a lot of childhood obesity in the schools and within the community. I think electronics, like gaming programs, are one of the biggest problems. A lot fewer kids are running around. If they don't exert themselves, their bodies aren't going to be able to burn the calories. Unfortunately, that leads to the situation we have now.
What requirements must recruits meet?
For someone who's never been in the military before, males must have no more than 26 percent body fat [a calculation of height, waist, and neck measurements] and females no more than 32 percent.
What do you tell recruits who fail to meet those standards?
When we encounter someone who is truly motivated to join the Army, we give them tips. We talk to them about diet and tell them things to avoid, like soda, sweets, and fried foods. We tell them they have to stay away from it. We also invite them to come to our training sessions. If they're willing to put in the work, we'll help them.
How hard is it for applicants to lose enough weight to qualify?
It's different for each individual. I've seen guys and gals drop the weight in a couple of weeks. They'll go out and get a gym membership and sweat it out and watch what they eat. We also have an applicant who lost over 100 pounds.
She changed her diet and did a lot of exercising. It took her over a year. Safe weight loss is 3 to 8 pounds per month. That's what we recommend. We have pictures of her before and after. You would not recognize her. It's just a great, great story. We were so happy for her and for her family.
Are you meeting your recruitment goals?
We're still doing really well in meeting our recruitment goals. We put in about 32 to 34 new applicants per month.
So does the weight issue concern you?
It does. Only about three in 10 people qualify to join the Army, and one of the biggest disqualifiers is the physical, which includes meeting the weight standards. It's a very big issue. The number of individuals able to join the military in this nation is shrinking. It's not just the Army's problem, the Marine Corps's problem or the Air Force's problem, it's a problem for America. We want to help them, whether they decide to join the Army or go into the workforce or to college. If that three in 10 Americans goes down to two in 10 or one in 10, it will definitely be an issue. We'd like to catch it now before it gets too bad.