Military Feeling Effects of US Childhood Obesity Epidemic

Military Feeling Effects of US Childhood Obesity Epidemic people walk past military recruitment center A military recruitment center stands in Times Square in Manhattan on September 04, 2020 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

By Sandy Fitzgerald | Wednesday, 19 May 2021 02:48 PM

The U.S. military is having trouble finding recruits that aren't too heavy to meet guidelines because of the growing childhood obesity rates across the country, so Army recruiters are working to identify potential soldiers who need to lose dozens of pounds before they can qualify to join the military.

"You're even recruiting in a population that is obese," retired Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost, who served for 35 years in the Army and works with the nonprofit group "Mission Readiness" to prepare potential recruits, told NPR. "That's what our recruiters around the nation are dealing with."

According to the Department of Defense, a full third of young adults ages 17-24, the optimal age for recruits, are simply too heavy to sign up.

The Army must recruit 130,000 people yearly to fill its ranks, and about 10 years ago, recruiters started working with potential recruits to get them ready to meet military guidelines so that they could meet their recruitment guidelines.

Frost said the military traditionally recruits mostly from Southern states, and obesity rates run higher there.

However, there are factors like low family income or lack of access to healthy food, particularly during the past year and the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to healthcare officials, one in four children is overweight in the United States, and the pandemic has caused a 2% to 15% rise in that statistic.

Experts say the stress from being kept at home has triggered emotional eating that's leading to weight gain, and being surrounded by junk food and not being able to get outside to exercise or play caused problems for children and teens who were locked down with their families in the early months of the pandemic.

This means that in another "generation or two," the current childhood obesity epidemic will mean real trouble for the nation when it comes to the military's capabilities, said Frost.

Retired Major Gen. Jeffrey Snow, who headed Army and Reserves recruitment until recently, said that food insecurity and junk food marketing adds to the challenges.

"It's a wicked problem," he said, noting that he had spent years "talking myself blue in the face." However, he said he doesn't know that he had any impact on the issue.

Snow said recruiters, however, can make a difference with their efforts. He estimated that about 1,000 to 2,000 people a year have been able to lose enough weight to join the Army because of the recruiters' grassroots efforts.

One recruiter, Staff Sgt. Stephen Ahlstrom, has been working with several potential recruits in Maryland, including one young man, Marcus Robinson, who wanted to join the military but was too heavy.

Ahlstrom said he gets recruits like Robinson back on track by reminding him of how to stay healthy, including drinking a gallon of water a day, avoiding the fast-food drive-thrus, and working out.

He also picks up potential recruits and drives them to workouts.

Robinson ended up losing 65 pounds, after starting off at around 240 pounds and was able to enlist.