More than two-thirds of active duty service members are within the overweight or obese ranges of the body mass index, otherwise known as BMI, according to American Security Project report released this week.
The report found that:
- 68% of active-duty service members are overweight or obese. “Obesity is the leading disqualifier of military applicants and a primary contributor to in-service injuries and medical discharges,” the report says.
- Military obesity across the active duty has more than doubled over 10 years, from 10.4% in 2012 to 21.6% in 2022. Eating disorders increased by about 79% between 2017 and 2021.
- Despite being a chronic disease with several FDA-approved treatment options, antiquated body composition policies and stigma prevent effective treatment of obesity within the Armed Forces, the report says. Recently, there has been a push to stop using the body mass index as the standard for military fitness, and this report appears to support that.
- The removal of body mass statistics from military recruitment and disability reports used by Department of Defense stakeholders and Congress “resulted in incomplete and misleading conclusions. This data is needed to identify at-risk populations and design effective, evidence-based interventions.”
Data from the Department of Defense, which is calculated using the person’s age, height, and weight, shows fatness has doubled in 10 years. During the same period, more than half of young Americans are obese and being too fat is now the top reason people are disqualified from joining the military.
The report makes these recommendations:
- The Defense Health Agency should promote and enforce awareness, diagnosis, and treatment of obesity as a chronic disease across the armed services.
- Body composition and military appearance regulations should be wholly reviewed and brought in line with evidence-based research. Policies allowing commanders to arbitrarily assign or exempt obese service members from medical intervention should be rescinded.
- All services should seek to close the gap between high recordings of obese BMI during military health and fitness evaluations and low obesity diagnosis and treatment rates.
- All service members with obesity should be referred to a credentialed obesity physician, registered dietitian, or bariatric physician for accurate diagnosis and treatment.
- Military reports on disqualifications, disability, and medical discharge should include BMI data until overweight and obesity diagnoses reflect real obesity rates of the force. Body mass data should be reintroduced within annualized reports evaluating recruitment, retention, and retirement trends.
- The Defense Health Agency should significantly improve frequency of military obesity reports or broaden the pool of researchers and academics who can access military weight data.
“The growing prevalence of obesity in service members reduces the readiness of the all-volunteer military, but it isn’t a moral failing; it’s a health crisis. Framing obesity as an issue of insufficient willpower or discipline prevents soldiers from seeking and receiving treatment, makes commanders and healthcare workers less inclined to intervene, and worsens health outcomes across the services,” the report notes.
According to the study, obesity varies across services with the Air Force having a reported obesity rate of 11%, while the Navy has a reported rate of 27%. Active Component men are twice as likely to have obesity as Active Component women.
Pacific Islanders have the greatest risk of obesity, with 41% obese, while Asian-descent personnel have the lowest, at 14%. Enlisted personnel, including combat support (military police/intelligence), combat arms (infantry/artillery), and combat service support (transport/maintenance), are 7% more likely to experience obesity than officers, according to the report.
The author, Courtney Manning, is a National Security Research Fellow at the American Security Project, leading ASP’s research on military recruitment and readiness, strategic competition with China, and emerging technology risks. She holds a master’s degree in international security policy from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the University of Denver Korbel School.