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Obesity is Now a National Security Issue

Obesity is Now a National Security Issue

Mallika Chopra | GOOD Magazine

We need programs like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” to ensure the health—and safety—of future generations.

“Lets Move,” says Michelle Obama in her first nationwide initiative as First Lady, and the country needs to do just that. With two thirds of American adults, and one third of American children overweight or obese, Michelle Obama has taken a bold, public step to address a problem that affects the health, productivity, economy, and dare I say, the security of our nation.

The U.S. obesity problem is complex, but the First Lady is addressing it head on. “This isn’t like putting a man on the moon or inventing the Internet,” she said recently. “It doesn’t take a stroke of genius or a feat of technology. We have everything we need right now to help our kids lead healthy lives.”

The initiative brings together federal agencies, non profits, and businesses for a ground-up redesign of our health landscape. Let’s Move is rethinking school lunches and breakfasts, remaking neighborhoods for walking and playing, providing healthier food options in under-served neighborhoods, and encouraging doctors to regularly check Body Mass Indexes (BMIs) for early detection of obesity risk.

Just recently, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention showed that one in five U.S. teens has unhealthy cholesterol levels. The rate jumps to 41 percent for obese children. In children, abnormal cholesterol levels—defined as low HDL (good cholesterol), high LDL (bad cholesterol), or high levels of triglycerides—could lead to health problems like heart disease, diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, and a host of other illnesses. Chronic diseases, such as asthma, heart disease, and diabetes, account for 75 percent of health care spending today, so fighting obesity is a key to disease prevention.

Aside from disease-related health care costs, the loss of productivity has a real impact on American society. The leading disqualification from enrolling in the U.S. Armed Forces is being overweight. The retired army general Johnnie Wilson says 75 percent of young people at the prime ages for military recruitment, 17 to 24, aren’t fit to serve; they’re too fat to serve, making obesity, in the General’s estimation, a national security issue.

Inspiring programs, like Shape Up Somerville in Somerville, Massachusetts, have paved the path for other communities to follow. The program, launched by Tufts University in 2002 and supported by the CDC and philanthropic groups, holistically approaches lifestyle and infrastructure. Shape Up replaced unhealthy snacks and drinks in schools with healthy choices, added bike lanes and pedestrian walkways so people would ride or walk to school or work, encouraged neighborhoods to create community gardens and restaurants to add healthy dishes to their menus. The result in one year was astounding: School children in Somerville gained 15 percent less weight than their peers. Less weight gain has a significant impact for the long term health and weight gain of children who are prone to obesity.