Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Too fat to fight

In a December 10 Washington Post story, "Rising number of soldiers being dismissed for failing fitness tests," Ernesto Londoño reports that "the Army is dismissing a rising number of soldiers who do not meet its fitness standards, drawing from a growing pool of troops grappling with obesity."

Obesity is now the leading cause of ineligibility for people who want to join the Army, according to military officials, who see expanding waistlines in the warrior corps as a national security concern. Between 1998 and 2010, the number of active-duty military personnel deemed overweight or obese more than tripled. In 2010, 86,186 troops, or 5.3 percent of the force, received at least one clinical diagnosis as overweight or obese, according to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center. The trend has prompted the military to reexamine its training programs and is driving commanders to weed out soldiers deemed unfit to fight.

Putting the focus on training programs is misguided. The real problem is with what recruits are eating--namely, too much sugar.

A National Institutes of Health study, for example, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in October reported that for people with a genetic predispositon to be fat the more sugary drinks they consume the fatter they will be and vice versa. The U.S. Army needs to prohibit soldiers from consuming sodas, sweet teas and fruit juice. If a recruit is thirsty, give him water or unsweetened green tea or black coffee.

An Australian author, David Gillespie, is touring the world crusading against sugar consumption. In his book, "Sweet Poison," he argues that "when we eat the fructose component of sugar - unlike when we eat any other forms of energy - our bodies do not release the three major appetite hormones that tell us we are full: insulin, leptin and cholecystokinin (CCK). Instead it goes straight to the liver where it often stays - converted into fat.

Dr. Robert Lustig of UC San Francisco calls sugar a poison. "Food was just as abundant before obesity’s ascendance. The problem is the increase in sugar consumption. Sugar both drives fat storage and makes the brain think it is hungry, setting up a vicious cycle. More specifically, it is fructose that is harmful. Fructose is a component of the two most popular sugars. One is table sugar — sucrose. The other is high-fructose corn syrup. High-fructose corn syrup has become ubiquitous in soft drinks and many other processed foods."

A big driver for the U.S. Army to rid itself of fat soldiers is that, as our wars are winding down, the budget demands a smaller force, according to the Washington Post.

During the first 10 months of this year, the Army kicked out 1,625 soldiers for being out of shape, about 15 times the number discharged for that reason in 2007, the peak of wartime deployment cycles. Under a mandate to reduce the force by tens of thousands in coming years, the Army has instructed commanders to make few exceptions when it comes to fitness, a strategy it also employed during the period after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “During a war period, when we were ramping up, the physical standards didn’t have a lot of teeth because we needed bodies to go overseas, to fill platoons and brigades,” said Stew Smith, a former Navy SEAL and fitness expert who has designed workout routines for service members and law enforcement personnel struggling to meet workplace fitness standards. “During a period of drawdown, everything starts getting teeth, and that’s kind of where we are again.”

It is not only that soldiers are getting fat after joining the military. Most young people are too fat to enlist.

“Of the 25 percent that could join, what we found was 65 percent could not pass the [physical training] test on the first day,” he said in a recent speech. “Young people joining our service could not run, jump, tumble or roll — the kind of things you would expect soldiers to do if you’re in combat.” Smith, the former Navy SEAL, said the bulk of people struggling with weight issues are simply the product of a generation that has become increasingly sedentary and accustomed to large food portions.

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