By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY
Several hundred retired military leaders are raising red flags about childhood obesity in the USA and its impact on finding qualified recruits, calling for junk food to be booted out of schools.
Mission: Readiness, a group of more than 300 retired generals and admirals, is releasing a new report today saying that the 40% of students who buy high-calorie, low-nutrient junk food from school vending machines and cafeteria a la carte lines consume an average of 130 calories a day from those types of foods (candy, chips, cookies, pastries). That's roughly 5% to 10% of the calories kids and teens should eat in a day.
The analysis says that junk food adds up to 400 billion "empty" calories in a year or the calories in almost 2 billion candy bars, which would weigh almost 90,000 tons, more than the weight of the aircraft carrier Midway (70,000 tons).
All those extra calories are contributing to childhood obesity, a problem that means many young people are too heavy to serve in the military, ultimately putting national security at risk, the report says.
Three-quarters of those ages 17 to 24, or about 26 million young people, cannot serve in the military, a quarter of them because they are overweight or obese, says retired Air Force lieutenant general Norman Seip, a spokesman for Mission: Readiness, which advocates policies that would help young Americans get ready to serve. Other reasons young people can't join if they want to: They don't have a high school diploma, have criminal records or suffer from other health problems.
The new report called "Still Too Fat to Fight" is a follow-up to the group's 2010 report "Too Fat to Fight."
"We look at childhood obesity not only as a health crisis but a national security issue," Seip says. "When 25% of young people can't join the military simply because they are overweight, that's an issue that needs to be dealt with."
Right now, all the armed services are meeting their recruiting goals because of the economy, Seip says, "but we shouldn't use the current economy as a recruiting strategy.
"At the end of the day, it's not our aircrafts, our tanks, our ships or our information technology that keep our nation safe and sound, it's the men and women who wear the uniform and so proudly serve," he says.
About a third of children and teens are obese or overweight, putting kids at a greater risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other health problems. They are also more likely to be overweight or obese as adults. Obesity is still climbing among boys ages 12 to 19, government statistics show.
In fact, the male rates of being overweight or obese (73%) in the U.S. are already higher than those of any other major country, the report says. "While there has been a near doubling of obesity rates worldwide since 1980, no other major country's military forces face the challenges of weight gain confronting America's armed forces."
For example, many accepted recruits are diverted to special training to address inadequate physical fitness before they can even begin basic training, and those costs add up, the report says.
The retired-military group based its caloric intake estimates on a survey of junk food and sugar-sweetened beverages in schools conducted in 2005 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That survey found that about 40% of elementary, middle and high school students -- 16 million school kids -- bought and consumed these foods and beverages on any given day.
For its report, Mission: Readiness focused on junk foods, which are called "competitive foods," and factored out sugar-sweetened sodas because major beverage companies have largely stopped selling high-sugar sodas to schools since the survey was conducted.
The retired-military group is urging the government to move quickly in releasing updated nutritional standards for competitive foods in schools as required by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The law directed the USDA to update nutrition standards for all food served in schools. The updated standards for school meals have been released and are being implemented, but the standards for competitive foods served in a la carte lines, vending machines and stores have not been released.
"We believe the country has taken a step in the right direction in serving healthy foods at schools meals, but we need to finish the job and make sure there are high nutrition standards for foods sold in vending machines and a la carte lines," Seip says. "We urge Congress to put the health of our children ahead of special interest groups and adopt the USDA's updated competitive foods standards."
Justin DeJong, a USDA spokesman, says, "Secretary Tom Vilsack has asked for additional time to review the proposed standards for competitive foods to ensure that we do what is right for kids in a way that is workable to the school districts that will be charged with implementation."
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says about a dozen states have "reasonable standards" for what's sold in vending machines in schools, but there is still a lot room for improvement in schools. "We are on the road to making improvements in foods sold in vending machines in schools, but we're not there yet," she says.
The military has been concerned about school nutrition for years and was instrumental in persuading Congress to pass the original National School Lunch Program in 1946, Seip says.
If you are overweight as child, there's a good chance you'll be obese as a young adult, Seip says, "and you'll be chasing that problem all your life. Developing healthy eating and exercise habits as early as possible is critical."
"This is a team effort. This is not a spectator sport," Seip says. "There's a role for everyone to play -- whether it be parents, government, schools, the medical community, food and beverage industry -- to turn the childhood obesity epidemic around."