Bad Idea: The fat red line

US national security is at risk - we have been told that much already. But who knew the culprit was the humble hamburger? Who, that is, but Mission: Readiness, an organisation that uses the mildly disturbing slogan "Military leaders for kids" and advocates a healthy diet for children because you can't send them away to war if they grow up to be fatties.

According to Too Fat to Fight, the organisation's latest report, 27 per cent of Americans aged between 17 and 24 are too heavy to enrol for military service. In 39 states, two in five are overweight or obese - more graphically, 11 million young Americans have a collective 400 million pounds to lose. Because the vast (ha!) majority of fat adults start life as fat children, the former generals who make up Mission: Readiness lay the blame at the school gates. "Unhealthful foods", they note, are freely available from canteens and vending machines. So the organisation is calling for a legally binding nutritional standard on the food served in schools, and for increased funding for school lunch programmes.

Few people, except perhaps the odd unscrupulous fast-food executive, would argue that more fruit and fewer chips was a bad idea. Government standards, however, are less of an obvious win: five years on from the creation of the UK government's School Food Trust, it's hard to know whether it has had much impact. Its research suggests that a large proportion of healthy lunch options ends up in the bin, while children stock up on snacks and sweets on the way to and from school.

It is not entirely surprising that the military types behind Mission: Readiness would want to deal with America's weight problem using rules. It is even less surprising to find them concerned in the first place. In America, obesity is concentrated in pockets of deprivation - eight of the ten fattest US states, as listed by the Trust for America's Health, are also among the ten poorest. Military recruitment drives tend to be focused in these areas, so the pool of potential recruits is being squeezed like a well-fed thigh in a pair of sample-sized Levi's.

Calling for a nation to improve its health, solely to improve the quality of its cannon fodder, is less a bad idea than a sinisterly utilitarian one. Meanwhile, it was reported last year that Germans serving in Afghanistan had become fatter than their civilian counterparts. Forty per cent of the country's soldiers were overweight, compared with 35 per cent of the nation overall; an unhealthy diet and inactive lifestyle on base were blamed. It's just a thought, but perhaps those Americans who make it through childhood unscathed by obesity should not be exposed to the health risks - and there are a few - of being in the army.

This article first appeared in the 24 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Greece now, Britain next