New Campaign Aims to Improve Troops, Families’ Health

By Elaine Sanchez, American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Defense Department has launched a “groundbreaking” obesity and nutrition awareness campaign aimed at improving the health and well-being of troops, retirees and their families across the services, DOD’s top health affairs.

Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs and TRICARE Management Activity director, joined First Lady Michelle Obama at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., Feb. 9, to unveil the campaign, which involves improving nutrition standards militarywide for the first time in 20 years.

“The Department of Defense is making a groundbreaking commitment to the health of our troops and their families,” the first lady said in a news release yesterday. “And in doing so, they’re not just sending a powerful message throughout the military community, they’re sending a message to our entire country.”

The campaign, developed by the Military Health System, will rally all of the services to encourage people to make better nutritional choices and to take a more active role in their personal health, Woodson said in an interview at the Pentagon Wednesday.

“America has a growing problem,” he said, noting the pun is intended. “We have an issue of increasing obesity within the civilian population, [and] a history of poor nutritional choices, both in the civilian and military populations, that’s affecting readiness.”

Nearly 30 percent of potential military candidates ages 17 to 24 can’t qualify for the military because they’re overweight, Woodson noted. Additionally, the military discharges about 1,200 entry-level candidates each year due to their inability to meet fitness and weight standards.

“This is really a national security issue if we’ve got a population of youth that could serve in the military, but can’t serve because of weight standards,” he said.

The Military Health System’s campaign will call on the services and the Pentagon’s office of military community and family policy to help in achieving the following:

— Updating menu standards at military dining facilities;

— Assessing the nutritional environment of military facilities; and

— Ensuring healthier foods are available in dining facilities, DOD schools and other places where troops, retirees and their families purchase food on bases, such as vending machines and snack bars.

In other words, as the campaign unfolds, high-starch and sugary treats will have to step aside as an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables and lean proteins move onto installations. “Our intent is to look at opportunities to improve what’s on the menu, and therefore, the choices,” Woodson said.

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DOD hasn’t updated its nutritional menu standards in nearly 20 years, he noted. “It’s time to take a comprehensive look,” he said. “We know so much more about good nutrition and how to prevent disease” than ever before.

Military children will be an important focus of this campaign, Woodson said, noting the importance of developing healthy habits at an early age.

It’s all about making good choices, he said. A vending machine filled with soft drinks and sweets is an attractive draw for children. But if that vending machine now contains apples, bananas and other healthy items, he added, children will make different choices.

“It’s about facilitating good decisions and creating environments in which they’ll succeed,” he explained.

Today’s children are tomorrow’s service members and leaders, Woodson said. “What we do, how we teach them, the environments we put them in, will predict how successful they will be later in life,” he added.

The campaign also will focus efforts on military retirees, who will receive enhanced obesity-related counseling and nutritional information, Woodson explained.

The Defense Department spends about $1.4 billion a year on health-related problems related to obesity, he noted, including diabetes, heart disease and osteoarthritis.

“Obesity is a preventable problem which, if combated, can help prevent disease and ease the burden on our overall Military Health System,” Woodson said in the release.

“Our strategy within health affairs is moving from what we call health care — just delivery of services — to producing health in our population we serve,” he said in the interview. “It’s about a mindset that looks at disease prevention rather than disease treatment.”

This new, comprehensive initiative is not just about health care providers, but also is about partnerships, Woodson noted — individuals, installation commanders, military and civilian communities, family programs, schools and parents working together to build healthier populations.

“There’s a role everyone can play,” he said. “It’s about catalyzing the movement and synergizing the efforts and the leadership to focus on health.”

Woodson said he has high hopes for the new campaign. “I think this will improve the health of the entire population,” he said.

The first lady agreed. “Whenever our men and women in uniform step forward, Americans take notice,” she said in the release. “When our service members make healthy eating a priority in their lives, the rest of us are more likely to make it a priority in our lives.

“Simply put,” she added, “this is America’s entire military once again stepping forward to lead by example.”