The U.S. military’s obesity rate has doubled over the past decade, and more than two-thirds of the military can now be classified as overweight, according to a new report by the American Security Project (ASP).
The ASP report, published on Oct. 11, found that 68 percent of active-duty U.S. military service members are overweight or obese. The report also found that between 2012 and 2022, the portion of service members that could be considered obese on the body mass index (BMI) had risen from 10.4 percent to 21.6 percent.
These weight problems are impacting both recruiting and retention in the military. The ASP report assessed obesity as the leading disqualifying factor for military recruits for more than a decade. All military services make exceptions for recruits when it comes to their respective weight standards, but only the U.S. Marine Corps documents these exceptions as “weight waivers.” Nevertheless, these weight waivers account for nearly half of all medical waivers granted to military recruits.
Weight concerns can become a reason for an administrative discharge from the military. However, the ASP report notes, administrative discharge data is kept separate from health and BMI records, making it difficult to determine what proportion of separations are weight-related. A 2018 presentation by the Veterans Health Administration, did list 12,429 administrative separations under the category “unqualified for active duty, other,” which is described in the presentation as “did not meet medical fitness standards, no disability” and may provide some indication of weight-related administrative separations.
U.S. service members may also be medically discharged as a result of weight-related injuries and health conditions. Osteoarthritis is one such condition the ASP report described as highly correlated with obesity. Of the 94,036 U.S. service members diagnosed with osteoarthritis between 2016 and 2020, 17.9 percent were separated from the military by August of 2021.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to the military’s growing weight challenge. Earlier this year, the Center for Health Services Research at the Uniformed Services University published a report finding that 26.7 percent of U.S. Army soldiers who were considered healthy before the pandemic became overweight, and 15.6 percent of soldiers who were overweight before COVID-19 became obese during the pandemic.
Shrinking Recruiting Pool
Obesity is just one contributing factor in the military’s recruiting struggles in recent years.
Last year, the Army notched a 25 percent miss on its fiscal year 2022 recruiting goal, coming in 15,000 recruits short of its goal of 60,000 new soldiers that year. In fiscal year 2023, the Army notched an 18 percent miss, reaching 10,000 fewer recruits than the goal of 65,000 it had set. The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy also missed their recruiting marks in 2023.
A 2020 Department of Defense assessment concluded that about 77 percent of Americans between 17 and 24 years old would be ineligible to serve without some form of waiver. The assessment found that 11 percent of the 17–24-year-old population would be disqualified for weight reasons alone.
The various military branches have tried a variety of approaches to deal with overweight recruits. Last year, the Army launched its “Future Soldier Preparatory Course,” to help recruits meet physical fitness and academic barriers prior to officially shipping to their initial basic training. The Navy followed the Army’s lead, launching a similar “Future Sailor Preparatory Course” this year.
In April, the Air Force relaxed its own standards, allowing new recruits with higher body fat measures to enter the service.
Report Recommends Different Approach
The ASP report included a list of recommendations for addressing the military’s weight problems. The report specifically discouraged the military from giving commanders the ability to grant waivers or otherwise exempt obese military service members.
ASP also raises specific concerns about programs like the “Future Soldier Preparatory Course.” The ASP report raises concerns that such programs will focus on rapid short-term weight loss efforts but not the need for long-term weight management efforts. The ASP report recommends referring service members over a certain BMI reading to credentialed obesity specialists or dietitians and for the military to consider various medications that can help with weight loss.
ASP also calls for the military to more consistently include BMI data and other weight-related metrics in reports on disqualifications, disability, and medical discharge, to increase transparency for how these weight-related factors impact the military’s readiness.