WASHINGTON — The Defense Department has joined forces with the nation to combat a childhood obesity epidemic that not only is a matter of health or nutrition, but also is a national security issue, a Pentagon official said.
“When the nation as a whole lacks in this issue, it’s pervasive,” Barbara Thompson, co-chair of DOD’s working group to combat obesity, told American Forces Press Service, noting obesity’s impact on everything from recruiting to the nation’s health system.
Today, First Lady Michelle Obama marked the one-year anniversary of her “Let’s Move” campaign, a nationwide initiative to promote making healthy food choices and increasing physical activity within homes, schools and communities. The aim, Obama has said, is to solve America’s childhood obesity epidemic within a generation.
“The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake,” Obama said at the Let’s Move launch last year.
America’s childhood obesity rates have tripled in the past 30 years, according to the Let’s Move website. Today, nearly one in three American children and about one in four military children are overweight or obese. This issue has a tremendous impact on the health system, and from a military standpoint, it can affect everything from recruiting and retention to the force’s ability to fight, said Thompson, who also serves as the director of the Pentagon’s office of family policy, children and youth.
Thompson cited a report called “Too Fat to Fight,” which states that 75 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 are unable to join the military for various reasons, with being overweight or obese the leading medical cause.
“When you take into account that 50 percent of military youth enter the military or consider entering the military, that’s a huge pool we need to be focused on,” Thompson said.
Spurred on by the first lady’s efforts, the Defense Department formed a childhood obesity working group in August, with a committee of nearly 30 helping professionals from a variety of military backgrounds and expertise, Thompson said. The group includes pediatricians, family medicine physicians, dietitians, nurses, public health professionals, military and civilian personnel experts, family and child and youth professionals, and representatives from the Defense Commissary Agency, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and morale, welfare and recreation.
To tackle a daunting task, the group divided into four subcommittees: nutrition and health for children from birth to age 18, the Military Health System, food and fitness environments and education and strategic communications.
The committee then set out on a mission to improve the health and nutrition of military families, Thompson said.
“We’re developing a strategic action plan that cuts across the DOD’s food environment,” she explained. “We have to look at our food courts, our school menus, how physically friendly is the installation so children can walk to school and bike to school to increase their physical activity, for example.
“It’s a very comprehensive look at what we can do as a department to help our families make the right choices for their families,” she added.
They’ve already made considerable progress, Thompson noted. With the Army taking the lead, officials are creating standardized menus for child development centers to ensure the centers are meeting children’s nutritional needs. They’re also working with vendors who supply the centers’ food to ensure they’re getting the freshest vegetables, lower-fat cuts of meat and less processed food laden with fats, salt and sugar.
Since children receive about two-thirds of their daily nutrition requirement while in military child care centers, these efforts are poised to have a significant impact, Thompson said, also noting that military youth and child development centers serve about 700,000 military youth on any given day.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to impact the way they think about healthy lifestyles,” she said.
Additionally, the committee is working to develop community gardens, healthy cooking classes and classes on the relationship between finances and food. Eating at home, for example, generally is less expensive than eating out, Thompson said.
Thompson also cited progress within the civilian sector that the military can adopt. The first lady is working with a major “super store” chain to reduce the number of products high in fat, salt and sugar and to boost the number of fruits and vegetables it offers, she explained, and commissary officials are looking into this as well. Commissaries already have increased the sales of fresh fruits and vegetables, she noted.
Additionally, the department is working to offer more healthy choices in vending machines, schools, dining facilities, clubs, bowling centers, food courts, and any other on-base locale that offers food, she said.
These changes not only will affect children in the short term with better stamina and well-being, but also will have a significant impact on their long-term health, Public Health Service Cmdr. (Dr.) Aileen Buckler, working group co-chair and TRICARE population health physician, told American Forces Press Service.
When a child is overweight or obese, particularly obese, she explained, they’re at a much higher risk of cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, as well as increased blood sugars, which can lead to higher rates of Type 2 diabetes at younger ages than what was seen in the past.
Weight issues often follow children through the years, Buckler noted. Studies show that about 85 percent of children ages 10 to 15 who were overweight became obese by age 25, she said. And children who are obese before age 8 are more likely to have more severe obesity as an adult, which can lead to greater risks of cardiovascular disease, stroke, certain types of cancer, osteoarthritis and even infertility, she added.
To keep these health issues from snowballing, Buckler’s Military Health System subcommittee is taking action within health care offices nationwide. Members are working on a policy memo aimed at helping pediatricians, family physicians and civilian health care providers properly diagnose overweight and obesity in children, track trends and offer parents ideas of how they can help at home.
They’re also evaluating civilian and military toolkits on childhood obesity so they can develop a standardized toolkit for military and civilian providers, she added. This will ensure they reach the widest scope of children, including those of National Guard and Reserve families.
Along with new initiatives, the committee is taking current, effective programs into account, Thompson said. The committee has gathered an inventory of current service programs to learn from effective practices with an aim to expand those programs across the department, she said.
But the department can’t accomplish this alone, Thompson noted. “It takes a village to make good change,” she said. “We need to bring the message to the important adults in their lives. And as adults, we need to be good role models for our children.”
Thompson summed up a healthy family goal with the aid of a few numbers: five-two-one-zero. People, she explained, should aim for five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, two hours or less of screen time, one hour of physical activity and zero sugary drinks.
About 40 percent of children’s calories are empty ones, she noted. “That is a real concern that they’re not getting enough vitamins and fiber,” she said.
The working group is factoring in the additional challenges military families face, Buckler noted, such as multiple deployments and frequent moves. During a deployment, for example, the at-home parent may find it more difficult to find time to shop for healthy foods or take children to physical activities such as soccer or basketball, she said.
“It probably makes eating healthy and getting activity into your life harder,” she acknowledged.
But military parents can take smaller steps toward change to start, she noted. They can choose skim milk instead of whole or reduced-fat milk or take a family walk or bike ride after dinner rather than turning on the TV.
“You can go play kickball or throw a ball around,” she suggested. “The goal is to get out of the house, get moving and away from the television.”
Thompson said she’s optimistic about the changes that have occurred and what is yet to come.
“The committee’s members are very passionate and committed to making positive changes,” she said. Thompson said the group plans to publish a full report with the group’s progress and recommendations in the spring.
Meanwhile, for more information on a healthy lifestyle, people can visit a service health and wellness facility, check in with a base fitness center or visit the Let’s Move campaign website at http://www.letsmove.gov or Military OneSource at http://militaryonesource.com.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)