Senior Airman Christian Terrill, 445th Aeromedical Staging Squadron medical technician, demonstrates the proper techniques of doing a pushup for Senior Airman Billie Dunigan, also a 445th ASTS member, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, in April 2017.

Senior Airman Christian Terrill, 445th Aeromedical Staging Squadron medical technician, demonstrates the proper techniques of doing a pushup for Senior Airman Billie Dunigan, also a 445th ASTS member, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, in April 2017. (U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — Almost seven out of every 10 U.S. troops are either overweight or obese, according to a new report, which also warns the growing trend could compromise military readiness and undermine national security.

The American Security Project, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that studies modern national security issues, conducted the study and found 68% of active-duty service members fall somewhere between overweight and obese on the body mass index, which is a long-used but controversial method of assessing a person’s body classification by height and weight. A person between 25 and 30 on the BMI is considered clinically overweight and more than 30 is considered obese, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“Rapid and sustained recurrence of obesity across all services, ranks and positions now poses a dire threat, especially for at-risk populations and those in critical combat roles,” the group’s report states. “Designing an effective strategy to monitor and tackle obesity within the U.S. military begins by treating it like any other chronic disease.”

The American Security Project underscored obesity is the leading disqualifier of military applicants and a “primary contributor to in-service injuries and medical discharges.” The group also said the number of troops in the “obese” category have more than doubled in the past decade — from 10.4% in 2012 to 21.6% last year.

Each service has its own minimum body composition standards that recruits must meet, but the maximum has historically fallen between BMI scores of 24.9 to 27.5.

The American Security Project said it studied sets of data supplied by the Pentagon between 2018 and 2021 for active-duty members in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps and interviewed dozens of service members who were part of the active-duty component in the past six years. Military Health System reports spanning from 1973 to 2023 also were analyzed. The group also studied data from several military physicians and demographic data obtained from the Defense Medical Surveillance System. Additional data on overweight and obese troops came from the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Division and was based on evaluations of nearly 545,000 active-duty service members who completed a health assessment in 2021.

The project’s report is the latest data-driven assessment to show more American troops are gaining weight. The scientific journal BMC Public Health found in August that roughly 140,000 active-duty Army soldiers had gained weight in a nine-month span in 2020 and 2021 during the coronavirus pandemic, when service members had to spend more time indoors. Nearly 74% of all soldiers who were studied had an unhealthy BMI in that time — up from about 68% in the weeks before the pandemic arrived in the United States, BMC Public Health found.

“Based on the results from this study … increases in BMI among Army soldiers are likely to continue unless there is intervention,” the report, which used data from the Military Health System Data Repository, said at the time.

The report published by the American Security Project agreed and outlined several recommendations for the Pentagon, including scrapping Defense Department policies that allow commanders to exempt obese troops from medical intervention and reviewing body composition regulations. It also suggested referring obese troops to appropriate physicians for treatment and producing more frequent military obesity reports. It also said recruiting and retention reports to Congress should include BMI figures.

“By adequately screening for obesity, military services can develop proactive measures to address obesity,” the report states. “Early screenings for obesity and related health conditions, such as prediabetes and high cholesterol, are associated with sustained weight loss, better health outcomes and a lower cost burden on healthcare systems.”

The body mass index has been a weight measure for many decades, but recent research has concluded it has serious limitations. In the summer, the American Medical Association said the BMI system cannot reliably assess body weight and called it “misleading” when it comes to effects on mortality rates. For example, BMI might consider a healthy person “overweight” when that person’s muscle mass — not body fat — is what’s causing their weight to be too high relative to their height. Further, the AMA said BMI is flawed because it was originally based only on data collected from white populations.

The American Security Project’s study comes at a time when the U.S. military is struggling to recruit qualified young Americans. Less than 25% of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 qualify physically and academically for military service, according to recent Pentagon data.

“Obesity poses a complex challenge to recruitment, readiness and retention within the U.S. armed forces,” the study said.

The military services have taken steps in recent years to counter obesity. The Army and Navy, for example, have each introduced fitness courses to engage potential recruits early and get them into shape so they can qualify. In August, the Army said its course saw a 95% graduation rate in its first year. Earlier this year, the Marine Corps began using more accurate biometric scanning machines to assess body fat.

The American Security Project also said the negative stigma that surrounds weight issues must be overcome.

“Obesity is a chronic disease, not a lapse in personal discipline,” its report said. “Despite this reality, the enduring stigma against overweight soldiers continues to result in punitive measures in lieu of medical treatment.”

“To ensure the long-term strength and operability of the armed forces, services must decisively and cohesively address obesity within their ranks, maintain strong body composition standards and bring health policies in line with evidence-based recommendations,” the American Security Project said. “Identifying, diagnosing, and treating obesity within soldiers at the front lines of our national defense may ultimately determine the long-term survival of the force. It may not be easy, but it is long overdue.”

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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