Childhood Obesity and National Security

Childhood Obesity Awareness Month encompasses many areas of life, including military preparedness. NPR journalist Yuki Noguchi wrote,

Across all segments of the military, 31% of young adults ages 17 to 24 cannot enlist because they’re too heavy, according to the Department of Defense. The Army, the military’s largest branch, needs to recruit about 130,000 people a year to carry out its missions, and therefore faces the brunt of the recruitment challenge that childhood obesity presents.

Some experts even go so far as to predict that within a generation or two, the shortage of fit recruits could become an “existential threat” to the country. To complicate the problem, a disproportionate number of new military members come from the American South, where obesity rates are higher than in the North. Of course, when the COVID-19 pandemic came along, that did not help matters at all, on any front. People of all ages, from all parts of the country, have tended to put on pounds.

Taking responsibility

No official program is involved, but starting about 10 years ago, some individual recruiters have been taking it upon themselves to work with potential recruits in order to get them down to acceptable enlistment weight. They have seized the initiative to do things like start workout sessions in recruitment office parking lots.

The reporter spoke with one such mentor, Staff Sgt. Stephen Ahlstrom, who has even been known to pick up the teens he is trying to help at home and drive them to workout sessions. Some of the young folks will hang in there for months, determined to meet the standard. One of Ahlstrom’s mentees eventually dropped 100 pounds.

A recruiter might periodically record weights and measurements to monitor the progress of the young people who show up. They also listen and talk, helping with the various mental challenges involved in making such an extreme life change. They might remind a struggling overweight youth that having a weekly “cheat day” does not mean eating like a fool all day, but allows, for instance, one cheeseburger on Saturday night. Even small hints can help, like downing a daily gallon of water.

The brass get involved

Even for dedicated mentors, many factors are beyond their control, like low family incomes and lack of access to healthful foods. The reporter spoke with Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost, who belongs to the nonprofit group Mission Readiness. He and others like him have been focusing on preventative measures, like championing food subsidies for low-income families so that basic nutrition can be assured.

Retired major general Jeffrey Snow is another high-ranking military person who issued warnings. Of him, Noguchi wrote,

“It’s a wicked problem,” he says, adding that he’d spent years “talking myself blue in the face” but without much success. “I can’t even tell you that I had an impact on this issue.”

Still, thanks to such organizations and to the recruiters’ unofficial efforts, it is estimated that between one and two thousand people per year are rendered fit for acceptance into the armed forces’ basic training programs.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Fighting Weight: How Military Recruiters Take On Obesity, Case By Case,”, 05/17/21
Image by U.S. Army Europe/Public Domain

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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