Increasing rates of obesity among young Americans could undermine the future of the US military, with potential recruits increasingly too fat to serve, two retired generals said on Friday.
"Obesity rates threaten the overall health of America and the future strength of our military," generals John Shalikashvili and Hugh Shelton, both former chairs of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a commentary.
Obesity disqualified more potential recruits for military service than any other medical factor, the two former commanders wrote in the Washington Post.
The two generals urged Congress to adopt legislation that would ensure better nutrition in schools, offering children more vegetables, fruits and whole grains while cutting back on foods with high sugar, sodium and fat content.
"We consider this problem so serious from a national security perspective that we have joined more than 130 other retired generals, admirals and senior military leaders in calling on Congress to pass new child nutrition legislation," wrote the commanders, part of a non-profit group called "Mission: Readiness."
The warning came amid growing concern that childhood obesity has turned into an "epidemic," affecting a staggering one in three American youngsters.
A study released in March warned more American children are becoming extremely obese at a younger age, putting them at risk of dying decades younger than normal-weight children and of suffering old-age illnesses in their 20s.
The US military also faces a problem with troops already serving who are overweight, with some soldiers losing out on promotions because of their failure to meet fitness standards.
Although the military enjoyed record-breaking recruitment levels last year, officials say the growing problem of obesity could present a serious problem for recruitment efforts over time.
The two retired generals endorsed a plan by President Barack Obama's administration to increase funding by one billion dollars a year over ten years for child nutrition programs.
Investing in nutrition made sense as the country was already spending 75 billion dollars a year on medical costs associated with obesity, they said.
Citing figures from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, the commentary said the proportion of potential recruits who flunked their physical tests because they were overweight has jumped nearly 70 percent since 1995.
Shalikashvili, who led the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993 to 1997, and Shelton, who held the same post from 1997 to 2001, cited school lunch legislation passed in 1946 as a model.
Military leaders at the time recognized that poor nutrition reduced the pool of qualified candidates for the armed forces, they said.
"We must act, as we did after World War II, to ensure that our children can one day defend our country, if need be."