04/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

As Obesity Rises, Our Military Shrinks

In what I think may be the most poignant picture of the obesity epidemic, it was reported today that 3 out of 4 military-age Americans are unfit for service. The reason? They surpass the weight and/or body fat percentage limits set by the government. Since 2005, over 48,000 potential soldiers have been turned away due to weight issues - more soldiers than are currently stationed in Afghanistan.

What does it say about a country when the vast majority (75%!) of the citizens who are eligible to fight for it - and ostensibly are in the prime of their lives - are physically unable to qualify for military service on the basis of weight? And lest you think the military standards are overly rigorous, you need only to come in under 26% body fat for men and 32% for women. To see the maximum allowable weight by age, gender, height, check out the official Army site (although the requirements vary slightly by branch of service.) Catwalk models, they are not.

Curtis Gilroy, the Pentagon's accessions chief, says, "It's clearly a problem for the United States military. We're faced with a dwindling pool of the youth population in the 17-to-24-year-old group about which we are very concerned."

In addition to compromising our ability to protect ourselves from outside threats, another recent study shows that our rising weights also affect our ability to provide fundamental emergency services. Researchers from Harvard and The Cambridge Health Alliance found that more than 75% of emergency responders (fire or ambulance services) are obese or overweight.

"Emergency responders (firefighters, ambulance personnel and police) are expected to be physically fit to perform strenuous duties without compromising the safety of themselves, colleagues or the community. Traditionally, these professions recruited persons of above- average fitness from a pool of healthy young adults. However, given the current obesity epidemic, the candidate pool is currently drawn from an increasingly heavy American youth."

While I cringe at the thought of weight discrimination in the work place, there do seem to be some fields where job performance is contingent upon general health, weight playing a significant part of that. Can an overweight or obese firefighter or EMT provide the same level of emergency care that they would be able to if they were lighter? Perhaps it depends on the person. Certainly there are people out there labeled as overweight that could throw me over their shoulder and strap a kid to each appendage and then climb down 10 flights of stairs - but I'm guessing that's more the exception than the rule.

I have to admit it makes me feel a bit frightened and vulnerable to think that such a high percentage of those people who should be able to serve and protect, if necessary, are simply physically unable to do so. All concerns about aesthetics aside, our country is only as strong as its citizenry.

Not everyone feels this way, however. Professor Samantha Kwan says the "obesity epidemic" is overblown media hype. "This epidemic has been constructed to the benefit of the medical industry that has in part medicalized the treatment of obesity over the years. While there may be a rise in 'obesity,' the BMI is not always accurate. Some scholars describe this epidemic more as a moral panic. While there may be some truths to rising rates, they have been overstated."

Do these stats scare you like they do me? Or is this one more incidence of the fat hysteria sweeping the country?