USADOD Takes Steps to Combat Childhood Obesity

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 or Mil­i­tary One­Source at

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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