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.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Two years into the Revolutionary War, a surgeon general in the Continental Army issued a pamphlet on nutrition. "The diet of soldiers should consist chiefly of vegetables," Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote in Directions for Preserving the Health of Soldiers. "The nature of their duty, as well as their former habits of life, require it."Directions'counsel sounds thoroughly modern, like advice from good-food crusaders Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman—and it probably fell on deaf ears. It was routine, in Rush's time, for soldiers to consume a "pound or two of flesh in a day."

More than 200 years later, the U.S. Army is still struggling to provide a more wholesome diet to its meat-loving soldiers, if not pile their plates chiefly with vegetables. It rolled out a new food program last fall in cafeterias at Fort Jackson in South Carolina; Fort Sill in Oklahoma; Fort Knox in Kentucky; Fort Benning in Georgia, and Fort Leonard Wood, in Missouri—the five bases where the Army's 10-week basic training sessions take place.The initiative, dubbed "Soldier Athlete," bans soda, refined grains, and fried foods in favor of healthier options such as low-fat milk, whole grains, and veggie wraps. The policy also phases out the short-order grill, adds more items to the salad bar, and prohibits dessert cookies and cakes. Since some high-in-fat items are still on offer, the better-for-you fare is supposed to be reinforced through a new "Go for Green" labeling system wherein the foods that should be consumed sparingly, moderately, and daily are indicated by red, yellow, and green placards, respectively.

The program is unobjectionable—it makes sense to approach warrior nutrition the way you might tackle dietary plans for athletes. Yet the very need for such an initiative underscores that, generally speaking, the modern military puts little effort into preserving its members' dietary health.

Theoretically, each branch of the armed services devises its mess-hall menus in accordance with nutrition guidelines established by the Surgeons General of the Army, Air Force, and Navy. The rules—which call for male service members to consume 3,250 calories a day, the bulk of that from carbohydrates and unsaturated fats—are reasonable when compared with recommendations from the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine. In reality, though, most military mess halls are arranged like buffet-style food courts and are governed by branch-specific food protocols that stipulate a spread of fatty, sugar-filled, caloric and often processed fare.

Take the Army. Its food program mandates that soldiers have access to eggs-made-to-order, three types of bread, three types of meat, six kinds of cereal, no fewer than one potato dish, and at least one pastry at breakfast alone. At least two hot entrees, with one sauce or gravy, must be offered at lunch and dinner, along with a deli bar featuring three types of meat; a short-order grill with four items; "two additional hot short-order entrees (pizza, fried chicken, and so forth)"; French fries; onion rings; assorted chips and pretzels, and at least four desserts. These are minimum standards. The Marine Corps is much the same. Chocolate milk is mandated at every Marine meal, and four types of soda must flow at lunch and dinner. Marine bases with funds available for takeout containers are encouraged to serve hamburgers, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and French fries from the griddle at lunch, dinner and breakfast.

This all-you-can-eat style of chow-hall is a relatively new model. For most of the 20th century, the menus were more Spartan, with one or two options for meat, starch, and vegetables. But after the draft was rescinded, military brass began to think of service members more like customers; a certain quality of life was considered necessary to keeping a fast-food nation enlisted, and the food-court model took over. At the same time, a parallel food universe evolved alongside the government-funded mess halls. Franchises like Taco Bell and KFC moved onto bases; vending machines stocked with candy and energy drinks were installed in barracks. After the Iraq war began in 2003, fast food became available in combat zones.

I can sympathize with the idea that some comforts of home can sustain morale during battle, not least because I'm married to a former trigger-puller. I wouldn't advocate restoring the old austerity of selection. If it were me, I'd want some variety at the dining hall, too. But our military leaders are doing their personnel a disservice by offering such an abundanceof unwholesome choices. Consider that every year, 1,200 overweight enlistees are given the boot before the first term of their contracts have even expired.

Each branch enforces maximum standards for weight and body fat. One study published in 2009 found that 35 percent of the personnel in three medical companies at the Army's Fort Bragg exceeded the standards over a two-and-a-half-year period. An earlier report, from 2004, estimated that 16 percent of all active-duty military are obese. Overweight troops are given a chance to shed the requisite pounds and a deadline to do it. Failure results in discharge—a fate that befell 21,513 enlisted troops between2004 and 2009. During wartime, that average fourpercent annual loss of manpower creates hardship on the ground and the balance sheet. A 2007 report estimated that excess weight accounts for $105.6 million in annual productivity costs. According to the same report, training a replacement for each dismissed service member costs $50,000.

Those who manage to meet the standards aren't healthy by default. Last fall, the Army Times published a story describing how some personnel who fear they'll fail the weight tests resort to liposuction, pills, starvation, dehydration, and laxatives to stay within regulations. The military also predicts that a significant number of troops will face weight-related illness later in life. A 2001 report by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, for example, found that risk factors for Type II diabetes in the military mirror that of the U.S. population at large—an issue "of concern" since troops are "younger and presumably more fit individuals." A 2004 report by the defense department determined that 80 percent of male military retirees and dependents are overweight, and 33 percent are obese. "Twenty plus years of active duty in the military does not confer any long-term protection against overweight, obesity or the associated co-morbidities," the study said.

You could argue that the military should rethink its weight standards. Certainly administrative jobs demand less fitness than infantry positions. Not every soldier will have to haul a wounded colleague and his 50 pounds of gear out of a kill zone. And since the armed services assess fitness through aerobic and strength-training tests, must they really disqualify people who meet those requirements yet don't measure up to body-mass benchmarks? It's worrisome that the Army (for example), while serving so much crap, justifies its standards by claiming that fat connotes an undesirable "lack of personal discipline." Surely the branches would acquire more sympathy for their policy by focusing instead on how fatness also increases the risk for Type II diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.   

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.

"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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