Universities dismiss obesity epidemic contributing to Army's recruiting crisis

The Army is expanding a program to help recruits meet height and weight standards, with the CDC reporting that the obesity epidemic makes many Americans ‘Unfit to Serve.’

The recruiting crisis coincides with the rise of academic theories that deemphasize any discussion of weight, sometimes to curb the risk of upsetting people.

After the Army missed its recruiting target by 25 percent, it expanded the Future Soldier Preparatory Course, a program for recruits who fall short of the physical and academic standards to enlist. 

The 84-day program helps recruits outside of height and weight standards with weight management, an effort recently dubbed “army fat camp” by The Economist

The program–piloted at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, with new sites at Fort Benning, Georgia–also provides classes to raise recruits’ scores in the Army’s standardized test, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB).

The Economist warns that the program is only part of the solution in a nation that is “Unfit to Serve” because of obesity, according to a 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). 

Medical researchers labeled obesity an “epidemic” in the United States back in the mid-2000s. But in recent years, the education sector is deprioritizing physical fitness or choosing not to frame obesity as a problem, with many voices in higher education celebrating overweight bodies.

The Army’s assistance with weight management, The Economist suggests, is a response to the failure of universities, schools and other institutions to educate youth on healthy habits. 

“Schools and parents could do more to get children running around and eating properly long before a recruiter calls,” The Economist wrote. 

The institutional silence on the lifestyle choices causing obesity in nearly 40 percent of Americans coincides with newfound academic theories on health and fitness. 

Like trigger warningscanceled speakers, and other movements reported by Campus Reform, these academic theories prioritize feelings, sometimes withholding health information to curb the risk of upsetting patients. 

One is health at every size (HAES), an approach to healthcare pioneered by author, researcher, and professor Lindo Bacon. A description in National Geographic says that HAES decouples obesity from its health outcomes, including diabetes and hypertension. Obesity, according to HAES, is correlated with these health outcomes but does not cause them. 

Another theory goes beyond HAES in that it does not merely pivot away from discussing obesity as a determinant of health. Instead, the burgeoning field of fat studies outright celebrates it. 

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In the early days of the pandemic, fat studies professors with the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse criticized reports of weight gain for promoting “fatphobia,” according to Campus Reform

One of the professors wrote a blog post to criticize, as Campus Reform reported, “those who speak out against weight gain and characterize it as ‘dangerous,’ saying they feed ‘into a system of fatphobia that oppresses and abuses so many.’”

While professors in fat studies, a field often connected with universities’ gender studies programs, allege the danger of fatphobia, medical experts suggest a causal relationship between extra pounds and serious illness during the pandemic. 

Research from the CDC appears to undermine fat studies and HAES by showing that obesity can triple the risk of hospitalization for patients with COVID-19. In a military context, “active-duty soldiers with obesity” are at a 33% greater risk for musculoskeletal injuries, according to a study cited in the CDC’s report “Unfit to Serve.” 

Institutions have joined UW-La Crosse in departing from the CDC’s pandemic guidelines, which focus on a healthy diet and physical activity, and other obesity research. 

Ideas disseminated by academic departmentsjournals, and campus events go beyond higher education, impacting how health care providers, professional associations, and teachers talk about weight. These include doctors who give patients the option to show “Don’t Weigh Me” cards or educational foundations recommending school posters that tell K-12 students, “Keep Your Health Advice To Yourself.” 

More recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggested surgical intervention for obese children while also using language that obscures obesity’s causes. As journalist Nellie Bowles argued in The Free Press, the AAP’s description of “children and adolescents with overweight and obesity” implies that obesity is a contagious disease rather than one prevented by giving youth healthy choices. 

“It’s cheap, government-subsidized corn products shoveled into school lunches, then a series of expensive drugs for chemically imbalanced adolescents. There is no middle ground,” Bowles wrote.

These institutions’ newfound approach to health is in stark contrast with the Future Soldier Preparatory Course, which gives recruits education and specific weight loss goals to combat what Fox News called “the worst year for military recruiting” in nearly 50 years. 

Even if the program helps recruits meet physical and academic standards, the Army faces other challenges to solving the recruiting crisis. Interviews with journalists specializing in military issues suggest that the Army must compete against the private sector for workers skilled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). 

Jennifer Barnhill, a columnist for Military.com, told Campus Reform that “not everyone currently serving needs to charge a beach head.” 

“Virtual warfare requires us to rethink military strength,” she continued. 

Interviews also suggest that the Army must compete for the dwindling percentage of workers seeking jobs that require vocational training. 

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Sean Spoonts, a Navy veteran and editor-in-chief of SOFREP, said that “prospects who do meet [Army] standards see better opportunities elsewhere and aren’t enlisting.” 

Vocational schools and junior colleges offer the technical training that used to make the military attractive to recruits, Spoonts observed. He added that many employers will pay the debt from technical training after two to five years of employment. 

“As the [t]ech level expands in the military, it requires ever more sophisticated recruits to fill those jobs, and these prospects can easily get affordable training elsewhere now,” Spoonts said. “This was not as true ten or twenty years ago.” 

Campus Reform contacted Bacon, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the CDC for comment. The public affairs officers at Fort Jackson and Fort Benning could not be reached at the time of publication. This article will be updated accordingly.