Too Fat to Fight? Obesity Becomes National Security Issue, Weight Would Disqualify Many Potential Military Recruits

Study finds military weight restrictions tougher on women than men

Release Date: November 27, 2002 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- If the U.S. military needed to recruit substantial numbers of young men and women into their forces quickly, they would face a vexing obstacle: the chubby American.

Moreover, military weight limits for women are stricter than for men in all of the forces, making it harder for women to get into the military and if they get in, to stay within weight limits without jeopardizing their health.

At least 13 percent of young men and 17 percent of young women of prime recruitment age would fail the weight requirements of all four services, researchers at the University at Buffalo and The Johns Hopkins University have found.

"This study shows that obesity is not just a public health issue, it's a national security concern as well," said Carlos Crespo, Dr. PH, study co-author and associate professor of social and preventive medicine at the University at Buffalo. "We're not physically fit to defend ourselves."

The study appeared in the Oct. 15 issue of The American Journal of Medicine. Rochelle Nolte, M.D., of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is first author.

Study results revealed an additional troubling scenario. Weight limits for men are set high enough to include two-thirds of overweight men based on national standards, while weight limits for women exist at levels that exclude normal-weight potential recruits, based on the same standards, the study shows.

The consequences of such a policy are evident in a 2001 study, published in Military Medicine and cited in this paper, that found that 72 percent of women in the military met the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. In the Marines, the percentage reached 97.5 percent.

"Why the women have to be a lot thinner than the men is a good question," said Crespo, who performed the data analysis on the current research. "There is not a lot of science behind those weight standards."

The study is based on data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) conducted from 1988-94 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The survey collected extensive health information from a nationally representative sample of the non-institutionalized civilian population. This study used data only on men and women between the ages of 17 and 20, the group most likely to be targeted for recruitment into the armed services.

Height and weight information on those surveyed were converted into a body mass index (BMI), a number reflecting the relationship of a person's weight to height. Each person was placed in a weight category based on the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's standards: underweight -- a BMI lower than 18.5; normal weight -- BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 BMI; overweight -- BMI of 25 to 29.9, and obese - BMI over 30.

Comparing weights of the young people in NHANES with military weight allowances showed that many potential recruits would fail the weight test. The percentage of young adults overall ineligible because of weight ranged from 13-18 percent for men and 17-43 percent for women, results showed. The ranges represent the highest percentage of ineligible persons in any weight/height category in all of the services.

Analysis by race and sex showed major differences. African-American men showed the least amount of ineligibility at 11-19 percent, but 35-56 percent of African-American women were over the limits. Among Caucasian participants, 15-20 percent of men and 12-36 percent of women would be ineligible. The percentages of ineligible Mexican-Americans ranged from 13-24 percent for men and 26-55 percent for women.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Crespo. "The study didn't take into account how many of those who are eligible have other conditions related to poor lifestyles, such as high blood pressure, diabetes or high blood cholesterol, not to mention those who never exercise or are heavy smokers.

"Being physically fit is not just a public health issue," Crespo said. "As a society, we need to be physically prepared to respond to natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or any other emergency."

Additional co-authors on the study were Shawn C. Franckowiak and Ross E. Anderson, Ph.D, both of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

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