Commentary

June 21, 2013

Officials battle obesity, tobacco with Healthy Base Initiative

Amaani Lyle
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Defense Department has teamed with the White House, industry, medical communities and installation leaders to assess obesity and tobacco programs for the total workforce, a Pentagon official said.

Starting in July, DOD officials will begin evaluating 13 installations to gauge their implementation of the Healthy Base Initiative, said Charles E. Milam, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy at the 2013 American Logistics Association Congressional Caucus and Public Policy Forum.

Installation assessments will consider such factors as healthy commissary offerings, ease of exercising, choices for healthy meals and availability of healthy snacks in vending machines, Milam said.

Participating installations are Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Sill, Okla.; Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; Submarine Base New London, Conn.; Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho; Yokota Air Base, Japan; Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center/Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command, Twentynine Palms, Calif.; Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.; Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, Mass.; March Air Reserve Base, Calif.; and Camp Dodge, Iowa. The other two participants are the Defense Logistics Agency, Fort Belvoir, Va.; and Defense Health Headquarters, Falls Church, Va.

The Department of Defense officials selected commanders who personally embrace a healthy lifestyle, Milam explained, adding that eight of the sites have on-base schools, facilitating assessments of each school’s fitness and lunch programs.

Milam said the initiative began two years ago when the White House and First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign sought to partner with DOD to assess the impact of national prevention strategies on youth in America.

The Healthy Base Initiative falls under Operation Live Well, which Milam calls “a bigger, much larger initiative under [DOD] health affairs that is enduring,” as officials seek empirical evidence of successful health programs.

Milam noted that canvassing the services for effective health, wellness and fitness ideas yielded some 40 pages of different initiatives. “Many of them were very effective, [but] no one could really tell me how effective they were,” Milam said.

So officials focused on improving two areas within the national prevention strategy, Milam said, with health affairs focusing on tobacco control and military community and family policy promoting nutrition and healthy lifestyles.

Milam illustrated the nation’s spiral into obesity since 1990, noting that in 2010 about 40 percent of the states were obese, with average body mass index of 30 percent or higher and that trends indicate the majority of the United States will be obese by 2030.

The military has a vested interest in eradicating this problem and with good reason, he said.

“Today, we recruit from a pool of about 25 percent of young men and women who are even eligible to join the military,” Milam explained. “And out of that pool, 27 percent can’t even meet basic weight requirements.”

Tobacco use, while on a fairly steady decline across the United States, is on an uptick in DOD, with a price tag of $1.6 billion in medical care costs, he noted. “We spend about 95 percent of our health care budget on treatment and about 5 percent on prevention,” Milam said. “So now is not a good time for me to be going to the comptroller to ask for more money.”

In 2010, 85,000 service members were obese, Milam said, adding that one of the primary reasons for men and women being forced to leave the military is failure to meet fitness and weight standards.

“Now, many are coming to us with weight problems already, because of what the nation is starting to look like,” Milam said.

The Defense Department has reached out to private industry, working with corporations that have developed their own health and wellness programs to take a holistic approach to improving health habits, including families, civilians and children, Milam said. A team of contractors from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., will travel to the military communities with DOD officials to help them evaluate the efficacy of health programs.

Dr. Brian Wansink, who leads the team, specializes in cafeteria makeovers, specifically in schools, Milam said.

“He goes in there with his team [and] doesn’t change one menu item, but he moves things around,” Milam explained. “He takes the sugary drinks, moves them toward the back, brings the water up front and puts the candy bars out of reach. You have to ask for them.”

These simple moves, known as “stealth health” have spurred a 35 percent change in behavior, where students reportedly opted for healthy alternatives to sweets and fried foods.

“At the end of all of this, we’re going to package the empirical data, not only DOD-wide, but put together something we’ll be able to share with the nation,” Milam said

The Healthy Base Initiative will:

  • Promote a healthy and fit force, which is essential to national security
  • Increase the awareness of the devastating impact of sedentary lifestyles and poor nutrition choices
  • Empower the military community to make better nutritional choices, increase physical activity, decrease tobacco use and lose weight
  • Provide a hands-on look at service-level innovations, which can be used to promote health and wellness best practices throughout the DOD
  • Support Operation Live Well, a program aimed at making healthy living the easy choice and the social norm.



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