Menu Changes Serve Up a Healthier Diet for U.S. Military

Obesity rates are on the rise across the U.S. armed forces, but improvements in cafeteria food may help improve soldier health.

The Department of Defense spent $926.9 million on food services contracts in 2012 and has already spent $336.9 million in 2013, according to USASpending.gov, an exhaustive database of government contracts.

With all that spending on food services, one could be forgiven for hoping that U.S. soldiers are eating healthy, but a new report shows an alarming rise in obesity rates among U.S. military personnel and suggests that their cafeteria food may be the cause.

A full thirteen percent of U.S. military personnel are clinically obese, according to a recent report that appeared in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. That figure is on the rise, mirroring the more dramatic increase in obesity rates among the general population.

According to Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, only about two percent of armed services members had weight problems in the mid 1990s. In 2005, that figure was five percent, which suggests an eight percent increase in obesity amongst military personnel in as many years.

The obesity epidemic amongst military personnel could negatively impact operational readiness and jeopardize Department of Defense operations, according to the report.

Researchers involved in the report wondered whether the food being served in military cafeterias could be at least partially to blame, as nearly three-quarters of military personnel eat at least one meal a day in garrison cafeterias.

Major Aaron Crombie of the U.S. Army, who led the research, said that such studies have been performed in workplace and school cafeterias. "However, studies to date testing such interventions in military dining facilities have been very limited and inconclusive," he said. "Our study aimed to address that information gap."

The study found that small changes in food service practices and menus in military cafeterias produced significant improvement in soldiers' nutritional intake. Increasing the availability of fresh fruit, vegetables, whole-grain foods, reducing the availability of foods with high dietary fat and sugar, and offering one main lean meat or vegetarian entrée at lunch and dinner all helped to increase soldiers' health.

"The results of this study give credence to the idea that... food service interventions can promote a healthy lifestyle and, in turn, optimize the health profile of warfighters," said Major Crombie.

Digital photography of a study participant's tray before consuming the test meal. Digital photography was used as a tool for visual estimation of diner intakes. Credit: Pennington Biomedical Research Center

"Although intakes of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains continue to be problematic, reductions in energy and fat intake may prove effective over the long term in combating the obesity problem," he added.

Steps are already being taken to improve the nutritional content of military food. First Lady Michelle Obama, who has actively sought corporate support to combat childhood obesity, has turned her attention to the food served in military mess halls. Her efforts have helped bring more fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dishes to military cafeterias under the first program in 20 years to improve military nutrition standards.

"When you make healthy eating a priority in your lives, the rest of us are more likely to make it a priority in our lives," Obama told airmen stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas.

Several companies that contract with the Defense Department to supply food, including Shamrock Foods and Food Services, Inc., did not respond to requests to comment for this article.

Image credit: 316th ESC, Flickr