Too fat to die?
A recent article in the Times, US troops are losing the battle of the bulge, revealed that being overweight is not just the preserve of the couch potato. According to the article, the Times had seen a report, commissioned by the Pentagon that:
"is expected to say that 53.9 per cent of US military personnel over the age of 20 would be classified as too fat to fight under federal obesity standards. A fifth of those aged under 20 would also fail the fat test."
As the US prepares for war there is a concern that their combat readiness may be compromised by the weight of their GIs. So it has got to this stage: the era of plenty has created an army that is too fat to fight. You would be forgiven for thinking that this embarrassing situation is a sad reflection of our times, but it isn't entirely new.
In Britain in 1904, the Report of the Inter-departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration expressed a need for nutritional reform at family level. It was produced in response to a document by the Director General of the Army Medical Services in which he claimed that recruitment for the Boer War was being hindered by the lack of physically adequate men.
A decade later, back on the other side of the Atlantic the American physician Lulu Hunt Peters recommended the formation of "Watch your weight anti-Kaiser classes" to keep the American people healthy while conserving food for the war effort. One can only hope that Dr Atkins will resist the urge to re-market his low carbohydrate diet with a snappy new title like: The New Diet Colonisation – a step-by-step nutritional guide to whooping Sadam's butt.
So what is the US Army to do? Increase training? Closely monitor soldiers' diet? Close down the McDonalds outlets opened on US service bases across the globe originally intended to encourage new recruits? No. Just move the goal posts. The existing federal guidelines define 'overweight' as a BMI of over 25. The US military have raised this limit. By redefining 'overweight' as a BMI of over 27, the US army can now reclassify about 30% more of its troops fit enough to fight. So how seriously should we take the BMI when it can be manipulated with such ease?
Using the BMI as an indicator of the health of populations is not without its critics. A recent article in the Guardian suggested that under the current guidelines Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jonah Lomu and Sylvester Stallone would all be classed as obese – a small consolation for those would be Rambos. However, had the Pentagon's report been conducted a few years earlier the weight of US soldiers would not have been an issue.
Before 1998, an individual was not considered to be 'overweight' until they had a BMI of 27.3 (for a woman) or 27.8 (for a man). All the US military are doing is reverting to pre 1998 definitions of 'overweight'. The rest of us, it would seem cannot be trusted to shake ourselves free from the tyrannies of gluttony and sloth. We need to be told we have a problem even though for a sizeable proportion of the population no problem actually existed prior to 1998. In the US this original 'shift of the goal posts' raised the proportion of people classified as overweight from 35% to 55%. Over half of US society is now officially sick.
So on Civvy Street with a BMI of 27 health professionals would have you reaching for the muesli and the membership card for your local gym. In the military, with the same BMI count you are now considered fit enough to fight, but be warned: you are also a rather large target.
Simon Bradley – December 10, 2002.
For more on the history of dietary advice see SIRC's Dietary Timeline