As a physician and lawmaker, I have long argued that federal global health aid improves America’s standing in the world and makes us safer by steadying unstable nations. Countries with healthy workforces have improved economic outputs, stronger family units, and are less likely to become havens for terrorists. But what many may not realize is that the health of our population here at home also impacts our national security.
Earlier this fall, Mission: Readiness, a group of 750 retired generals and admirals, published a new report, titled Unhealthy and Unprepared, showing that obesity is now a leading reason why 71% of young Americans are ineligible to serve in the military. This alarming trend, coupled with a decreasing number of young people interested in military service, means that our military soon may be unable to find enough recruits to protect American interests at home and abroad. And it’s already having an impact, with obesity rates cited as a major reason why the Army was not on track to meet its annual recruitment goals as of September 2018.
If we do not take comprehensive action to address childhood obesity, generations of children will grow up to have serious and potentially life-threatening health issues. Having spent a significant portion of my medical career as a heart and lung transplant surgeon, I am intimately familiar with how unhealthy habits that start at a young age can quickly become dangerous. Young people with obesity are more likely to experience chronic diseases, including heart disease, fatty liver disease, type 2 diabetes, and develop bone and joint problems later in life. Overweight adolescents have a 70% chance of being overweight or obese in adulthood.
The good news is that there are clear, evidence-based actions that we can take to promote healthy behaviors in children. Research shows that high-quality early childhood education and care programs can help teach children about the importance of physical activity and nutrition. Additionally, programs that require kids to be physically active at school and provide them with healthy meals can help to build the foundation for health and well-being later in life. We all know that as we get older and our brains develop, it is harder to change our habits; this is why promoting healthy lifestyles beginning in early childhood is so important.
As polarizing as our times may seem, there are always issues that can bring lawmakers from both sides of the aisle together. Trying to improve the health of our country’s children is one such issue, and we have seen proof of that in my home state of Tennessee.
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