Childhood obesity in the United States is alarming on many levels. Beyond the health risks for individuals, there are broad social implications to this crisis.
A group of retired military officers says this phenomenon is impacting the nation's military readiness. Weight issues have become the leading medical reason that the U.S. armed forces rejects recruits. Nine million Americans — 27 percent of all Americans ages 17-24 — are too heavy to join the armed services, according to a new report by the retired officers. Specifically, the officers blame unhealthy food served in the nation's schools.
Indeed, the government-subsidized school nutrition program should provide the healthiest options available to students. But to a large degree, that is already happening, as the nation's school nutrition program has modified recipes to reduce the fat, salt and sugar content of school lunches. Students have greater menu choices such as salad, potato and pasta bars.
If students make healthy choices and follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture's guidelines for recommended levels of physical activity — 60 minutes a day for children — they should be able to maintain a healthy weight.
But students don't always make the best choices. And some school lunch programs offer dishes such as French fries, hot dogs and pizza to encourage greater participation. While healthy side dishes may be available, many students chose not to eat them.
The offerings in school nutrition programs could be improved, but it should be understood that students eat but one or two meals in a school setting each day, if breakfast also is served in their school.
That means for more than half of the year (the American school year is about 180 days long), students eat their meals elsewhere. Among students in secondary school, where participation in school nutrition programs is considerably lower, they are eating a lot of food other than that provided by USDA programs.
Could it be that America's young people's diets are nutritionally deficient in general? Are too few American children engaging in exercise other than school-required physical education courses?
Food is relatively inexpensive in the United States. Healthy food — fresh fruit, fresh vegetables and lean meats — costs more, but it's not completely out of reach financially if consumers are smart shoppers.
Unfortunately, inexpensive fast food is readily available. While some healthy choices are available on their menus, many fast-food outlets encourage unhealthy eating with their combination meals and mega burgers.
Consumers have a wide variety of food choices. If parents control the food budget, they should be purchasing and preparing healthy meals. They should help their children make wise nutritional choices and participate in regular exercise because they — and the nation — benefit if the nation's children are healthy and strong.
Whether these children elect to serve in the military isn't a parent's primary concern. But it is understandable that this would be a concern to the federal government, which needs healthy men and women to fill its military ranks and pays a significant portion of the nation's health care costs through CHIP, Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans Health Administration and health care provided to active military members.