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DoD preps war on unhealthy lifestyles

Program to stress good eating habits, exercise for troops and families

Mar. 9, 2013 - 09:58AM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 9, 2013 - 09:58AM  |  
The Pentagon is planning a militarywide effort to influence the lifestyles of troops and families, aiming to change bad habits such as smoking, physical inactivity and unhealthy eating. The initiative was to be rolled out this spring, but several factors, including pending budget cuts, have delayed an announcement.
The Pentagon is planning a militarywide effort to influence the lifestyles of troops and families, aiming to change bad habits such as smoking, physical inactivity and unhealthy eating. The initiative was to be rolled out this spring, but several factors, including pending budget cuts, have delayed an announcement. (Senior Airman Ethan Morgan / Air Force)
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The Pentagon is planning a militarywide effort to influence the lifestyles of troops and families, aiming to change bad habits such as smoking, physical inactivity and unhealthy eating, according to a source with knowledge of the new program.

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The Pentagon is planning a militarywide effort to influence the lifestyles of troops and families, aiming to change bad habits such as smoking, physical inactivity and unhealthy eating, according to a source with knowledge of the new program.

The Healthy Bases initiative will be similar to a program established in 2003 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called Healthy Communities that targets behaviors known to cause chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, arthritis and cancer.

The Defense Department plan is to reduce these illnesses by encouraging active lifestyles and discouraging overeating and couch-sitting.

The initiative was to be rolled out this spring, but several factors, including pending belt-tightening measures under the sequestration budget cuts, have delayed an announcement.

As with Healthy Communities, the program is likely to be implemented through DoD schools, exchanges, commands and health care facilities, though defense officials declined to give specifics prior to the official unveiling.

"We are very excited about this initiative and are working hard to make this revolutionary effort a reality," said Charles Milam, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy. "We are currently collaborating with the many people and agencies that are key to this important effort."

Officials said the program will incorporate a number of ongoing efforts to promote wellness, including the military health system's Operation Live Well, currently under development, as well as projects to overhaul the menus at 1,100 military mess halls to include more lean meats, fruits, vegetables and other healthy choices.

The military exchange services have been participating in the planning stages of the initiative but could provide few details. The exchanges run the lunch program in DoD's overseas schools system, sell food in their stores, oversee other food concessionaires and sell fitness wear and equipment.

But it appears doubtful that the Defense Commissary Agency will be heavily involved. In a March 2011 memo, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered DeCA to eliminate its health and nutrition program and its outreach and marketing program in a DoD-wide effort to cut costs.

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"While DeCA would continue to provide a healthy selection of food choices for its patrons, its promotion of healthy lifestyles is not part of DeCA's mission," the memo stated.

DeCA officials eliminated the agency's dietitian staff position.

The services' installation officials also are involved. For example, the Navy Installations Command has nominated four installations to take part as potential host sites: Naval Station Rota, Spain; Naval Submarine Base, New London, Conn.; Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam; and Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., said Pat Foughty, a spokesman for Commander, Navy Installations Command.

Defense officials will announce two of those sites to officially be hosts in mid-March, he said. At that time, host bases' commanding officers will work with various organizations, including medical officials, fleet and family support officials, and supply officials on "an array of specific health issues," he said.

Risky habits

According to defense health officials, about one-third of young service members report using tobacco, a rate that has changed little since 2009.

Among Tricare beneficiaries ages 40 to 49, 20 percent of those on active duty are considered obese, while 40 percent of retirees in the same age group are significantly overweight.

In introducing an anti-obesity campaign in 2012, DoD Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs Dr. Jonathan Woodson said the plan is to push troops and family members to take a more active role in their personal health.

"It's time to take a comprehensive look," Woodson said. "We know so much more about good nutrition and how to prevent disease" than before.

But even initiatives with the best intentions face criticism. First lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign to end childhood obesity has been faulted for focusing on body mass index as a measure of health.

Critics say other assessments of fitness and ability should be used to assess overall health, not just weight or body mass measures derived solely from height and weight, since even excess lean body mass can raise BMI.

Laws that restrict food sales also have been sharply criticized. Opponents of a law banning sodas larger than 16 ounces in restaurants and theaters in New York City say that will hurt businesses and infringe on consumer choice.

Still, defense officials say programs like Healthy Bases are needed to maintain readiness and reduce the costs of medical care for troops, family members and retirees.

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