Boot Camp or Fat Camp?

The current debate raging across the internet’s tubes is whether America’s obesity epidemic poses a threat to national security. A mysterious “group of retired officers” commissioned and released the report, which says:

9 million young adults, or 27 percent of all Americans ages 17 to 24, are too fat to join the military. The retired officers were on Capitol Hill advocating for passage of a wide-ranging nutrition bill that aims to make the nation’s school lunches healthier.

Daniel Engber analyzes the numerical claims made in the study, and explains how their numbers are entirely misleading:

The Pentagon’s director of accessions, Curtis Gilroy, presented the same numbers to the House Armed Services Committee last March. He said that 35 percent of potential recruits are disqualified for medical reasons, with obesity being a major factor. Another 18 percent have drug or alcohol problems, 5 percent have criminal records, 6 percent have too many children; and 9 percent score in the prohibitive category V on the Armed Forces Aptitude Test.

It’s true that if you add those numbers, you’ll get something close to 75 percent. But that assumes no two of the above-listed groups are overlapping.


In the new report, the retired generals focus on just one sector of the pie chart—the 9 million young adults who are too heavy for military service. This number comes from the Census Bureau, and once again seems to discount the possibility that some fat people might be too stupid, morally corrupt, drug-addled or burdened by family to enlist in the armed forces anyway. As such, it’s a distortion of the facts to imply that every one of them might be in uniform, were it not for their excess weight.

While obesity may be the most obvious cause for rejection, the Army maintains a litany of potential disqualifications; aside from the usual asthma and heart conditions, ingrown toenails (if infected) and extra digits are also cause for rejection. The Army’s medical guidelines are no less than 148 pages long.

What the survey fails to consider is that some fat people have ingrown toenails, and some asthmatics also have weight problems. While it would be premature to declare obesity no problem for the military, it’s much less of a problem than it’s cracked up to be. With all branches currently exceeding recruitment goals, both in quantity and quality, there are presumably more important problems to worry about (not to mention that obesity rates might be leveling off).

Personally, I’m 6′ 8″ (just at the cusp of qualifying), weigh 330, and have ADHD and asthma. Three disqualifications right there, though Theodore Roosevelt is a good role model to emulate – the man beat his asthma, after all. But I’m disqualified from serving, much as I’ve been pondering the idea, as are vast swathes of the country.

Starbuck would like your thoughts – got any?

20 thoughts on “Boot Camp or Fat Camp?

  1. I like the mention of the “wide-ranging nutrition bill,” although from what I have found recently, it costs a lot more money to eat healthier than to eat unhealthy.

  2. Even if you’re in good shape, I know a lot of people that can’t pass the physical requirements.

    At 250 pounds with a 6’2″ frame, I could pass all the physical requirements except pull ups. I’m in the best physical condition of my life. But due to the BS BMI, they’d probably not let me join.

  3. In todays world, there are hardly any conventional wars, It is all about sophisticated weaponry or nuclear power.

    If it still wants more fitter soldiers, America will not hesitate to import soldiers. I think this scheme is already in the pipeline.

  4. What gets me- not that obesity is not an issue- but the way everything gets distorted out of propotion… especially in the media…

  5. Don’t forget that homosexuality is still grounds for disqualification. I think they might have screwed up the issue somewhere.

    Personally, taxes on high fat and sugar content–to actually make healthy foods cheaper–would help. Considering who controls the USDA, though, this isn’t going to happen.

  6. Norm: I think the BMI is secondary to weight. So I could be over the weight limit for my height, but as long as my BMI is within the requirements (26% for males 17-27), that wouldn’t be an issue. Of course, there are the other issues.

    Jnichols, Raul, and neurotype: there’s definitely a pricing component here. The fact that McDonald’s has a dollar menu means that a cheeseburger is cheaper than a head of lettuce, which is obviously a huge problem. But I don’t think that taxing fatty foods is the way to go. It’s not so much that they’re cheaper as it is that healthier foods are not cheap. Something in the area of subsidies, I’d say, is called for.

    Everyone else, thanks for the comments, keep them coming!

  7. Yah eating healthy costs a lot more, its really not much fun to deal with.I am in college, an if I had the right ings to eat I’d go bankrupt. Whatneeds to happen is mre organic foods, less processing, and better access to physical education, not just for eople who are in the military butthings like ater aerobics, and other easy on the body workouts.

  8. It’s unfortunate that people in our country are struggling with obesity while citizens of other counties are struggling with malnourishment. It’s so sad, we should be able to prevent this. I don’t understand why the United States doesn’t haven’t a better grasp on the amount of American citizens, American children that are going hungry day after day.

  9. You’re 6’8″? That’s tall. I’m impressed because you’re taller than any of the garden gnomes in my family.
    But I digress. Boot camp is tough; my husband joined the army at 18 and was released because of arthritis in the knees.
    Obesity is a problem in this country, especially in kids. I’ve seen several kids get off my daughter’s bus who need–for their own health–to lose 40 or more pounds.
    I agree that healthy food should cost less than junk food. If it did, maybe parents (because after all folks, they’re the ones buying for the family) would buy it.
    In our school district they serve “balanced” meals: a starch, a fat, etc.. But you can lead a kid to a healthy meal, doesn’t mean they’ll eat it. Example: one day they served chicken tetrazinni and my daughter refused to eat it–she doesn’t like gravy in any form. And the noodles were too small to slurp.
    I am, however, glad to see that many school districts are getting rid of the soda machines in the lunchroom.

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  12. Graham:

    Somewhat correct on BMI (as far as the US military’s policy goes). A Soldier needs to have their height/weight recorded 2x per year. If the Soldier fails the appropriate ht/wt, then they are given a “tape test” (body fat % test that’s grossly inaccurate).

    What kills me is that there are plenty of Soldiers who do well on their physical fitness test (push-ups, sit-ups, 2 mile run), but can’t pass their height/weight.

    Sadly enough, the standards are unevenly enforced (if at all, these days). We’re getting 18 year olds in the units–after having gone through basic–who are overweight and can’t pass their PT test. They’re not being kicked out like they used to. Our division requires the general’s approval to kick a Soldier out for obesity/PT failure, and that entails going through every little bit of counseling, paperwork, tape test, etc. Naturally, most commanders don’t like this level of micromanagement, so they simply don’t chapter them. The result is Soldiers who are in their early 20s and might be 80 lbs overweight.

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