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  • Writer's pictureStaff @ LT&C

OPINION: Obesity Epidemic Threatens Not Just Public Health, but Also National Security

When contemplating the greatest threats to American national security, an aggressive Communist China or expansionist Russia properly come to mind. However, there’s another threat closer to home, one that affects millions of Americans and is already affecting our national security.

It’s obesity.

More than 41% of Americans are categorized as obese (having a body mass index above 30). Of the U.S. population of 332 million, that adds up to 136 million obese Americans.

Obesity is much more serious than simply being overweight. It substantially increases the likelihood of health complications, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer. Problematically, America’s obesity rate has been steadily increasing, rising more than 11 percentage points over the past 20 years.

So, while it might not be politically correct to point out the detrimental effects of obesity, America’s security demands it.

Indeed, obesity is one of the main contributors to the military recruiting crisis today. Among Americans ages 17 to 24, it is the single-largest disqualifier for military service, with 11% of American youth ineligible to serve as a result of being radically overweight or obese.

This problem affects current service members as well. Most imagine the American service member as a “lean, mean, fighting machine.” But the reality is different. Poor eating and exercise habits resulted in 23% of U.S. troops characterized as obese during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not only is obesity detrimental to a service member’s health and well-being, but also to his or her warfighting capabilities. Obesity is directly correlated with inferior physical fitness. On the battlefield, the ability to run, carry a wounded comrade, or simply persevere with little sleep and great amounts of stress could mean the difference between life and death.

The risk of injury is also much higher for overweight and obese troops. For example, Army recruits have historically come disproportionally from the South, which also suffers from the highest rates of obesity in the country.

As a result of poor nutrition and obesity, Southern recruits make up 50% of injuries in basic training, even though they make up 41% of all Army recruits. Many soldiers do not even finish basic training because of those injuries, and lost work days caused by the effects of obesity are costing the Defense Department $103 million per year.

But back to American society as a whole. Obesity not only affects military readiness; it also hurts the American economy.

Every year, the treatment of chronic conditions caused by obesity costs the U.S. health care system $147 billion.

The worst part is that obesity is usually preventable. Left untreated though, it significantly contributes to the nation’s growing national debt, making up 8.5% of Medicare and 11.8% of Medicaid spending. More resources spent on obesity means fewer federal funds are available for national defense.

So, how did obesity grow to such a huge problem?

The obesity epidemic is partly perpetuated by deep-rooted sociocultural behaviors. Only 25% of American teens get the daily recommended hour of exercise daily, and the standard American diet consists of an excess of saturated fats and added sugars.

Also, the growing “body positivity” trend, which originally preached acceptance of all body types, has become a gateway to glorifying obesity. It’s disheartening to see society accept behaviors that are detrimental to humans flourishing. There is nothing positive about unhealthy living.

Americans must take control of their health and recognize the danger of obesity. There is no cure-all for this epidemic, but the nation can take steps in the right direction.

To begin, communities can ingrain healthy behaviors into everyday life. Healthy habits are best learned when taught at a young age, especially by parents. America’s fight against obesity must start in the family. It can also be reinforced through education at school.

Parents and schools must encourage children to maintain an active lifestyle. Potential solutions include promoting sports participation in high school and extending recess times for elementary schoolers.

For nutrition, materials explaining how to maintain a balanced diet should be made available to parents. Healthy eating can be encouraged in school as well. This can take many forms, such as guidelines for how to eat nutritious foods on a budget, as well as health score ratings for food choices in the school cafeteria.

To measure and keep track of the fitness of young Americans, there should be a national fitness assessment, akin to the old presidential fitness test.

Not only will a national fitness test provide tangible results, but also it creates a fitness benchmark for students to reach and maintain. Schools that reach certain benchmarks in testing can receive federal incentives, such as additional funding. On the individual level, achievement awards and scholarships can be given to top performing and most improved students, providing a motivation for young Americans to work on their physical fitness.

We cannot let sensitivities surrounding obesity prevent us from taking these commonsense steps that will both improve lives and America’s security.

The United States is only as strong as its people. As the nation plunges further into a new cold war with China, our national security will depend more on the health of America. Thus, reducing obesity helps not only just individuals, but our nation as a whole.


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