Family Matters: Tackling Obesity, for Security’s Sake
WASHINGTON, July 23, 2012 – It’s not often there is a national call to action over a matter of national security, but that is what’s happening over America’s obesity problem. Luckily, there is no shortage of resources for all of us to do our part in addressing it.
Concerns about the quick rise in obesity – some call it an epidemic -- and its potential to harm military readiness are not new. Ever since 100 retired generals and admirals formed the nonprofit organization “Mission: Readiness” and released its landmark 2010 report “Too Fat to Fight” to convince Congress to mandate healthy school lunches, federal officials, at least, have known of the military imperative to reverse the fat trend. The report included the services’ assessment that 75 percent of the nation’s 17- to 24-year-olds do not qualify for military service – mostly due to obesity.
Those concerns were reiterated last month when the Bipartisan Policy Center released its report, “Lots to Lose,” which shows alarming trends not only in recruiting, but also in retention due to overweight problems. The report notes that nutrition concerns for service members and recruits factored into President Harry S. Truman’s decision to mandate the federal school lunch program. The focus then, however, was vitamin deficiencies.
In the past two years, the movement has changed from alarm bells to action as public officials, including Defense Department leaders, carry the issue from Washington to cities, towns and military installations across the country. Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama took her “Let’s Move” campaign to Philadelphia to announce locally-based public-private initiatives that include things like closing a city street to traffic to make a “safe play” place, challenging residents to a city-wide diet, bringing farmers’ markets to low-income areas and holding information campaigns about the nutritional content of foods.
DOD has made similar changes, requiring all of its schools and daycare centers to give children meals emphasizing fruits and vegetables, restrict TV and computer time, ensure daily exercise and ban sweetened drinks.
Also last week, Charles E. Milam, principal deputy assistant secretary for military community and family programs, met with military food and beverage workers for their annual workshop and directed that they ensure that dining facilities and other installation eateries give healthy choices that also fit into today’s fast-paced culture. Also, Military OneSource offers free nutrition and fitness training to service members and their families.
In promoting Let’s Move, the first lady often talks about changing American culture toward healthier living. That’s where families come in. As I talk to military spouses and other parents, most agree that one of our toughest challenges is in challenging the idea that “kid-friendly” cuisine is limited to pizza, fries and chicken nuggets. Changing the culture will mean cutting back on the all-too-easy and inexpensive drive-through meals. It will mean cooking healthy and encouraging kids to try new things – even when your child’s friends are over. Changing the culture means challenging the notion that kids need snacks for every event – soccer, Scouts, etc. – even when the event only lasts an hour. And it means asking teachers to discourage parents from bringing cupcakes in the classroom for every birthday, especially when there are 30 kids in a class.
I’ve had to do all these things in the year and half since my daughter was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. It’s not easy to make these kinds of changes that affect the whole family, but it can be done. Now, at age 9, my daughter has memorized carbohydrate counts of many foods -- there are great carb and calorie counters on the market. She also recognizes foods high in sugar, salt and fat, and understands how much better she feels eating eggs for breakfast instead of pancakes or doughnuts.
Granted, she would not have learned all this without being forced to, and that is where the campaign against obesity comes in. With the right information – and there is plenty out there – Americans can change the tide on obesity and its many related problems. Even young children can tell if half of their plate is made up of fruits and vegetables, or count whether they’ve eaten five in a day. They can know that sweet drinks – including juice – is best saved for rare occasions, or if you have dessert at lunch you should skip it at dinner.
The cultural change Mrs. Obama speaks of will mean they have the information they need and the support of family and friends. Some great websites for information are the Agriculture Department’s “Choose My Plate,” Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures, and the National Institute of Health’s Health, Lung and Blood Institute.