Obesity Epidemic a Threat to U.S. Military Personnel and National Security

(September 2013) The obesity epidemic in the United States affects public health and the labor market, but researchers suggest that obesity may also affect national security.


Mission: Readiness, an organization of retired military leaders, has reported that 27 percent of today’s young adults are too fat to serve in the military, causing concern about the strength of the nation’s future military.1


The U.S. Department of Defense must recruit nearly 190,000 new military personnel every year to replace those retiring or leaving military service for other reasons. Nearly one-quarter of all applicants to the military are medically disqualified because of excessive weight and body fat. Disqualification due to obesity ranks far higher than the second-top reason: smoking marijuana (nearly 13 percent of disqualifications).2


Cornell Population Center researchers John Cawley and Johanna Catherine MacLean used data from the National Center for Health Statistics to estimate current military ineligibility and project obesity’s future impact on military readiness. In 2007-2008, nearly 12 percent of eligible male civilians (ages 17 to 42) and 35 percent of eligible women exceeded the Army’s weight and body fat limits. These levels reflect substantial increases over the past four decades. From 1959 to 2008, the percentage of men who were ineligible for enlistment because of their weight doubled, while the percentage of ineligible women tripled.2


As to the future, Cawley and MacLean reported that a gain of  just 1 percent body fat  would disqualify more than 850,000 additional men and 1.3 million women from Army service. And military leaders emphasize that today’s high levels of obesity among children present challenges in recruiting tomorrow’s military.


Lori M. Hunter is an associate professor of sociology, Institute of Behavioral Science, Programs on Population, Environment and Society, at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is also editor-in-chief of Population and Environment. This article is part of PRB’s CPIPR project, funded by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Hunter is liaison from the University of Colorado’s Population Center to CPIPR. Other NICHD-funded researchers who are highlighted in this article are John Cawley and Johanna Catherine Maclean of the Cornell Population Center at Cornell University.



  1. Mission: Readiness, Too Fat to Fight (Washington, DC: Mission: Readiness, 2010), accessed at
  2. John Cawley and Johanna Catherine Maclean, “Unfit for Service: The Implications of Rising Obesity for U.S. Military Recruitment,” Health Economics 21, no. 11 (2012): 1348-66.