By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 17, 2012 – The Defense Department is taking a leading role in a governmentwide effort to stop the nation’s obesity problem, Barbara Thompson, the director of DOD’s Office of Family Policy/Children and Youth, said.
DOD is one of 17 federal departments and agencies working together to identify opportunities for promoting healthy living as part of the White House’s National Prevention Council strategy, she explained.
“One part of that is preventing obesity,” Thompson told American Forces Press Service and The Pentagon Channel. “It has a huge impact on our quality of life, both for children and adults.”
Thompson noted a national increase in Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease, believed caused by increased fat, salt and sugar in Americans’ diets at the same time that many children are less active than in previous generations. There was a 40 percent rise in childhood obesity between 1998 and 2008, she said.
The shift toward unhealthier foods and less exercise has developed over the past 30 years or so, and is having a huge impact on health, healthcare costs, and national security, Thompson said. “For the first time, we’re hearing that this generation will not live longer than their parents.”
The Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, issued a major report last month, “Lots to Lose,” written by two former Agriculture secretaries and two former Health and Human Services secretaries, that includes a case study of Defense Department initiatives to counteract obesity, Thompson noted.
DOD’s spending on healthcare is rising at twice the rate as the civilian sector and “unhealthy lifestyles and obesity, in particular, are significant contributors to this trend,” the report says. It has reached $50 billion annually, taking up 10 percent of the overall defense budget.
The trend is wreaking havoc on the services’ ability to recruit, creating a national security imperative, Thompson said, with only 25 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds able to meet the military’s weight standards. The majority of applicants rejected for military service today have obesity issues, she said.
In 2010, 59 percent of female recruits and 47 percent of male recruits failed the military’s entry-level fitness test, the report says.
Of those recruited, the services are seeing large increases in service members with bone fractures, thought to be the result of calcium deficiencies, and so many dental problems that 62 percent of new soldiers were not immediately deployable, the report says.
Preventing Obesity in Children
Thompson’s office instituted a “5-2-1-0” policy for the department’s schools and childcare centers, as well as civilian partners that serve National Guard and Reserve children. The numbers represent five servings of fruits and vegetables, restricting “screen time” -- TV and computers -- to two hours each day, ensuring one hour of exercise daily, and allowing no sweetened beverages.
“Policy is one of the most powerful tools we have to implement change,” Thompson said. “We’re sharing those lessons learned with civilian community.”
“The bottom line is that we have to make healthy options available and affordable. And parents need to know how important fruits and vegetables are -- and small serving sizes.”
Thompson’s tips for curbing obesity include:
--Eliminate sweetened beverages, including juices;
--Practice portion control;
--Advocate for your children;
--Ask teachers to reduce sweets in the classroom;
--Get the nutritional information for school menus and ensure that they are healthy;
--Ask grocery store managers to move sugary foods higher than eye level to young children;
--Exercise as a family;
--Cook and eat meals as a family;
--Grow a garden, or encourage your installation to start community gardens;
--Make fruits and vegetables more appealing to children by offering a variety of color and textures; and
--Don’t stop serving a healthy food because children refuse to eat it; it can take many times of seeing it on their plate for them to adjust to the taste.
Also, Thompson said, limit electronics, not only because they make kids sedentary, but also because of the advertising. The food industry spends $10 billion annually in marketing food -- most of it high in salt or sugar -- to children, according to the “Lots to Lose” report.
As part of her “Let’s Move!” campaign to end obesity in a generation, First Lady Michelle Obama has asked food companies with advertising aimed at children to make their products healthier. Last month, Walt Disney became the first to introduce new standards for food advertising to kids. All foods marketed on Disney’s television and radio channels will be required to meet Disney’s nutrition guidelines -- which align with federal standards to promote fruit and vegetables and limit calories, sugar, sodium, and saturated fat -- by 2015, Disney officials said.
Preventing Obesity in Service Members and Families
The military is working to help service members and their families stay healthy. The Military OneSource website, www.miltaryonesource.mil, offers health coaches for adults and teens to help with weight management and to meet their overall health goals, Thompson said.
And, the first lady’s “Joining Forces” campaign recently announced that health clubs that are part of the International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association are offering free memberships to immediate family members -- teens and older -- of deployed reservists and National Guard members. Clubs may provide additional benefits such as childcare, children’s programming, group classes, discounts for veterans, and discounts for active duty families. Participating clubs can be found at www.healthclubs.com. Also, the American Council on Exercise is offering free training and fitness instruction to family members of deployed reservists and National Guard members. Participating instructors can be found at www.acefitness.org/joiningforces.
If the governmentwide efforts and those in DOD seem like a lot just to make Americans healthier, that’s the point, Thompson said.
“We all have to be in this together,” she said. “This is going to take a national effort to change these habits that have been ingrained in us for the past 40 years.”