Helping Soldiers maintain a healthy weight through nutrition

By Chanel S. Weaver, Public Affairs Office, U.S. Army Public Health CommandApril 2, 2012

It is widely known and reported that the prevalence of obesity in the American population has been increasing over the past few years.

But the Army is different, right? Soldiers are entrusted with fighting America's wars, so they are in the best physical condition, right?


The 2008 DOD Survey of Health-Related Behaviors reports that 13 percent of the Army is currently obese according to body mass index classifications. That number is up from only 2 percent in 1995. Although, the rate of obesity in the Army is lower than the general population, the upward trend in obesity rates closely mirrors the general population.

Additionally, a 2011 Army public health assessment indicates that excess body fat in the Army is associated with injury and decreased performance, which can lead to problems maintaining unit readiness.

One in six Soldiers (16.4 percent) reports difficulty in meeting the Army weight and body fat standards.

Even those Soldiers who are actually fit enough to deploy can face challenges in maintaining a healthy weight while serving in the deployed environment.

A study by the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine and the U.S. Army Public Health Command notes that during a deployment, diverse mission requirements may prevent Soldiers from developing consistent exercise practices or participating in sports activities.

"Literature suggests that fitness decreases and fat mass increases during deployments," said Dr. Theresa Jackson, a public health scientist at the U.S. Army Public Health Command.

Obesity can lead to serious health problems if left unchecked.

"In addition to heart disease, obesity can lead to breathing problems, arthritis, cancer, diabetes and ultimately, premature death," said Jackson.

One platform available to help Soldiers lose weight is the USAPHC-initiated Army Wellness Center, a program that is being stood up at 38 locations across the Army in the next five years. These centers serve as community resources, providing Soldiers with lifestyle tools to improve their health and well-being.

Among their standard services, these centers offer a variety of options to help Soldiers maintain healthy weight including metabolic testing, basic weight management and nutrition education.

During a health assessment at an AWC, metabolic testing is conducted to determine an individual's base metabolic rate. This rate indicates how many calories the individual burns at rest. If the person desires weight loss or nutrition counseling, the AWC will provide basic guidance or a referral to a registered dietitian for individualized nutrition counseling.

"This package includes basic weight management tips, body composition review and encouragement of … behavior changes," said Todd Hoover, program manager for the Army Wellness Centers Operations Program at the USAPHC.

The Army also recently unveiled the Soldier Fueling Initiative, spearheaded by Initial Military Training Center of Excellence and the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence and supported by the USAPHC. Mandated in February 2011, this initiative targets Army personnel who are attending basic combat training and advanced individual training at 10 sites in the continental United States.

The program uses color-coded labeling at these training sites to indicate the health benefit of foods and beverages. Items labeled red have low nutritional value, items that are labeled amber provide moderate nutritional content, and foods labeled with a green tag are the best options for consuming foods high in nutritional content.

"The goal is to create an environment where healthy behaviors can take place," said Jackson.

Lt. Col. Sonya Cable, program manager for the SFI, said the program gives Soldiers the fuel they need to perform their duties as Soldiers.

"Initial Military Training's Soldier Fueling Initiative, a community effort, sets a training table for our new Soldier athletes while educating them on the proper fuel to achieve their specific performance goals," said Cable.

The SFI is receiving positive feedback, according to Jackson, who helps evaluate and assess the effectiveness of such health promotion and public health programs for the Army.

"Even the dining facility workers who prepare the foods said by learning to prepare food in a healthier fashion, they are taking home these practices to their own families," said Jackson. "It's not one individual program component, but a combination of factors that make this initiative effective."

Maintaining a healthy weight and eating balanced diet is no easy task, but a proper mixture of fuels is important for health and performance. Research shows that a balanced diet includes complex carbohydrates, lean protein and a moderate consumption of fat.

"This can be easily done by consuming a variety of foods from all five food groups (dairy, fruit, vegetable, protein and grains) as close to the natural form as possible," said Lt. Col. Sandra Keelin, a registered dietitian at the USAPHC.

Keelin also said timing of meals and hydration is just as important as what you eat. Eating small, frequent meals is preferred to skipping meals or consuming large meals.

With the busy schedules and multiple demands placed on Soldiers, cooking a healthy meal at home is often time-consuming. But even if fast food is a Soldier's only option, Keelin said there are healthy choices that can be made.

"Most fast food restaurants have a nutrition analysis of their menu that can be found online or on-site," said Keelin. "Reviewing this information prior to making a selection can help guide healthier, low-calorie choices. Choose low-fat options such as baked potatoes, baked fries, fruit or a side salad. One can also choose water, low-fat milk or small juices as a healthier option over soda," she said. As much of a bargain as it sounds, Keelin said Soldiers should avoid supersizing value meals as this generally results in overeating.

While eating a balanced diet is important for Soldiers, another key to maintaining an optimal weight is engaging in regular physical activity.

"Consuming lower-fat and lower-calorie diets coupled with increased physical activity is the most effective tool to curb obesity," said Jackson.

Related Links:

Human Performance Resource Center

U.S. Army Public Health Command

U.S. Department of Agriculture