Military food and beverage workers gathered in San Antonio for the annual Armed Forces Food and Beverage Training Workshop were met with an appeal from a senior Defense Department official to help promote healthier living.
“This is a huge issue for the country and the Department of Defense in terms of recruiting, readiness, and retention,” said Charles Milam, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Military Community and Family Programs.
DOD has emerged as a leader in a governmentwide effort, driven by the White House’s National Prevention Strategy, to end obesity, Milam said. The Pentagon’s prevention and health working group has taken on health and nutrition to assist service members and their families, but they need the food industry’s help, he said.
The group has adopted policies for healthier menu items in dining facilities, daycare centers and schools, has pushed for healthier options in contracted restaurants, and has adopted programs such as the Army’s “Soldier Fueling Initiative” to target challenges in individual soldiers, Milam said.
The department’s effort “is teaching these kids about the basics” of nutrition, he told American Forces Press Service, “because they’ve lost that. They’ve turned to high-tech, eating-fast, and instant gratification.”
“My message is to hit this extremely hard,” he added, “to get their focus and their attention. We’ve got to get on this and get on it quickly.”
The number of service members diagnosed with being overweight tripled -- to more than 100,000 -- between 1998 and 2010, Milam said.
“This is costing us dearly,” he noted. “It has a major impact on mission performance and costs us billions [of dollars] while our service members are in uniform and after they retire.”
The department spends about $1.5 billion annually on obesity-related health care costs, he added.
Milam said it doesn’t cost the department much, however, to offer healthier options and educate service members and their families about diet and exercise. It already has done much to promote water instead of sodas and juices in vending machines, and set policies for healthier foods in dining halls.
“This is not just about putting iceberg lettuce in your cooler,” he said of dining halls and installation restaurants. “It’s also about going for baked over fried and getting away from supersizing” portions.
The department is also is encouraging healthier foods in contracted restaurants, such as fast-food establishments, on installations, Milam said. Some are offering bison burgers instead of beef and other less fatty, salty options. And some restaurants that don’t adopt healthier options are being replaced, he added.
“We don’t want to eradicate fast food on installations,” he said, adding, “fast food doesn’t have to be bad for you.”
The rise of healthier fast food, such as the Subway chain, shows that healthier also makes good business sense, Milam said.
Although today’s service members have grown up with high salt/sugar/fat foods, Milam said, research indicates they prefer it only for convenience.
“We have found that ‘millenials’ are very interested in being healthy, but they also want quick and fast,” he said. “So how do you make fast healthy?
“If all we offer them are poor choices, then bad on us.”