September 29, 2010:
The U.S. Army is making a major move to deal with the crises created by comfort food and fat troops. The changes are dramatic, and troops will see them three times a day. Mess halls ("dining facilities") are losing a lot of their high calorie items. French fries and fried chicken will now be baked. Low calorie yoghurt is replacing more fattening desserts. Milk and juices are replacing carbonated, sugar filled drinks. Lots more fruits and vegetables. Vending machines are holding more energy bars, and fewer traditional candies and cakes.
All this is to deal with the fact that, during the last decade, American troops have been putting on the pounds because of stress. And this weight gain was made easier because of the many fattening foods available in army mess halls. In 2003, the percentage of U.S. military personnel classified as overweight was not quite two percent (1.75 percent). That's where it had been since the 1990s. But since then, the rate of overweight has gone up sharply. By 2005 is was 2.9 percent. By 2007 it was 4 percent. Now it is over four percent.
It's all about stress. There's a war going on, and "comfort food" works in a combat zone. That's just as well, because in today's combat zones there's no alcohol, and no sexual activity with the locals (well, it's energetically discouraged). There's also an ongoing campaign to discourage smoking, and a regular testing program to make illegal drugs career suicide. What's an anxious troop to do? Eat. There's plenty of food, and more of it is fattening (more sugar, more fat and larger portions). Thus over a third of the troops admit to eating as a way to deal with stress.
Not everyone in uniform has problems with comfort food. Infantry units have virtually no overweight troops. But these comprise less than five percent of all military personnel, and many of them actually lose weight during a combat tour. Most of the added fat is found on support troops (the other 95 percent).
By service, the air force is the fattest (more than six percent overweight) and the marines the thinnest (about one percent overweight.) Weight is more of a problem with older troops. Thus those 40 or older are four times more likely to be overweight, compared to those under 20. As in the civilian world, women have a harder time with weight. Fifteen percent of military personnel are female, and about seven percent of them are currently overweight.
The military will discharge troops who are fat, although a fair amount of leeway is given. For example, the U.S. Navy does not consider a five foot, nine inch male in danger of discharge at long as they weigh no more than 186 pounds. That is about twenty pounds more than the "desirable" weight. The navy, and the other services, also use Body Fat Standards (what percentage of an individual's weight is fat). For the navy, its 22 percent for men, and 33 percent for women. All services have also learned to cope with very muscular individuals. People like this, usually guys, really stand out in person. No way these fellows are "fat," they are just big, and intimidating. Just the sort of person you'd want on your side. But on paper, these people are often classified as overweight, too overweight to stay in. After several embarrassing incidents, the regulations have been amended to recognize the muscular troops for what they are (big, but not overweight.)
The military makes an effort to get chubby troops down to a safe weight. But each year, hundreds of overweight troops, who fail to lose the pounds, are discharged from the service. For many of those who served in a combat zone, and dealt with the stress via food, they are just another casualty of war. A career dies, even if the soldier involved does not. The army found that when less fattening foods were all that was available in a combat zone, troop could still get their "comfort food" high, but not put on as many pounds. Yes, the troops missed the real, fattening, comfort food. And many ordered supplies of the real stuff by mail. But three times a day, everyone went to the mess hall, and if the chow there was less fattening, it made a difference.