Military mess halls: Fried, fatty, processed foods and sugary drinks are hurting our armed forces.

What to eat. What not to eat.
Feb. 28 2011 6:56 AM

Chocolate Milk at Every Meal

Unhealthy military mess halls are hurting our armed forces.

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Even if you don't buy that heaviness in and of itself is problematic, there's evidence that military mess halls are otherwise bad for soldier health. Five years ago, Sonya Cable, an Army lieutenant colonel and dietitian who works for the command that trains recruits, began analyzing data showing that more than 60 percent of soldiers were nondeployable due to dental issues and were lacking in calcium and other vitamins that help the body prevent and recover from injuries.

Figuring these nutrition problems might stem from brisk consumption of soda, energy drinks, and other sugar-filled products, Cable started advocating for changes in military food policy. At first, she had trouble making headway, but in 2010 she found a very enthusiastic partner in Mark Hertling, the deputy commanding general for initial military training. An amateur triathlete, Hertling had returned from a tour in Iraq in 2008 wearing an extra 20 pounds, and told the Army Times that while overeating due to stress could have been a factor, the bigger problem was the "obscene" quality of the food available to him, "the 27 different types of meals with all kinds of gravy and things that aren't healthy for you," as he put it.

Hertling thought Cable's pitch to make mess halls healthier was a no-brainer, and—together with 30 other officials— they hashed out the program that would become "Soldier Athlete" over a three-day period last summer. The overhaul was supposed to be complete on the five aforementioned bases by Feb. 1, and according to an Army spokeswoman, it went off without a hitch. Now, 30 cafeterias where graduates of basic training proceed for additional instruction are also implementing the new food policy.

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"Soldier Athlete" has some limitations. Heavily processed items are still allowed; so, for example, chicken that's been breaded by a vendor is acceptable, as long as it's baked instead of fried. And the minimum standard for fruits and vegetable options has not been significantly expanded from the requirement that two of each must be served at lunch and dinner; according to the new policy, some fruit should be cut up, so it's more quickly consumed, and no more than one vegetable option may be "starchy," i.e., corn, peas, or beans. Recruits are receiving some instruction in nutrition—but the subject only makes up one of the 754 course hours they must complete. Worse yet, soldiers typically only have 10 or fewer minutes to choose and consume a meal, which doesn't seem like very much time to apply whatever knowledge they might have acquired in class.

But the main problem is that "Soldier Athlete" only affects mess halls for new recruits. After initial training, they dine in mess halls with minimum standards guaranteeing French fries, onion rings, and four types of dessert.

It should go without saying that soldier habits and soldier health affect the country at large: Veterans return to civilian communities and contribute to consumer demand for super-sized junk foods; our tax dollars fund the $1.1 billion annual tab for their weight-related medical problems. The recently-released Dietary Guidelines for Americans for the first time ever stipulates that produce should take up half the plate. At the very least, that recommendation and Hertling's approach should be strongly considered not only by other Army commands, but by all the armed services.

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Kristen Hinman is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. Her Web site is www.kristenhinman.com.