Military

US soldiers got fatter during COVID-19 pandemic, decreasing readiness

The percentage of young adults able to join the military without a waiver continues to decline, and it's a problem that is likely not going away.

Military uniform with flag patch.
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In a span of two years, the number of overweight and obese U.S. troops grew, prompting concerns about the nation’s military readiness. 

In a study recently published by the World Health Organization, about 27% of soldiers at a healthy weight in 2019 became overweight by 2021. About 16% of troops who were merely overweight became obese during the same timeframe. 

The overall number of troops with obesity grew from 18% to 23% from 2019 to 2021, the researchers noted. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those with a body mass index between 18.5 and 24.9 are considered healthy. Those in the 25-29.9 range are considered overweight, while those with a BMI greater than 30 are considered obese.

For a person with a 5-foot-9 height, 125-168 pounds is considered healthy. Those weighing 169-202 pounds are considered overweight, with obesity starting at 203 pounds.

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The new data comes months after the American Security Project released a report late last year indicating that military readiness is declining in large part due to obesity. The report also noted the pandemic played a role in reducing the military’s readiness and increasing waistlines. 

The report said “If current trends continue, the Armed Forces are unlikely to have the capacity to carry out all of the missions they are expected to.”

The report noted a stark increase in childhood obesity during the pandemic. 

“Obesity among adults who would otherwise constitute eligible military recruits is certainly an immediate challenge which COVID-19 compounded, but obesity in the next generation could be greater by an order of magnitude,” the report found. “Youth is a formative phase of life and exposure to regular physical activity and balanced diet can be determinative for a child’s future. Likewise, unhealthy consumption habits can also calcify during adolescence.”

The military estimated in 2020 that 77% of those ages 18-25 would be unfit to serve for various reasons, with weight being the leading cause. In 2018, that figure was 71%, meaning the pool of potential recruits shrunk by about 21%.