The U.S. veteran obesity rate has reached 80 percent, surpassing that of the general population. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says that more than 165,000 veterans who use its health care services have a body mass index higher than 40, a threshold that interferes with basic physical functions and leads to chronic illness.
Excess weight increases the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and some types of cancer. Diabetes and obesity have increasingly appeared together, especially in veterans, more than 20 percent of whom classify as diabetics.
That’s why the VA has stepped into action to encourage healthy eating habits among its patients while addressing the root causes of an unbalanced diet and sedentary lifestyle. Since 2013, some branches across the country have hosted nutrition education and cooking classes for retired servicemen and women grappling with excess weight. Nearly 150 veterans in Portland, for example, decipher nutritional labels and learn about portion control while watching healthy cooking demonstrations.
“There are a number of reasons. Food, addictively, works exactly the same neurons in the brain as other addictive substances such as alcohol, and drugs,” Michel Goldschmidt, health promotion and disease prevention manager at the Portland VA, told a local NPR member station. “Homelessness, job challenges, PTSD, issues related to their war experiences. That adds up to using what could be considered to be a socially available and acceptable outlet. And eating is one of them.”
The United States’ obesity rate has more than doubled since the 1970s. More than 1 in 3 Americans carry excess body weight, according to figures compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That figure translates to 1 in 5 cancer deaths and $50 billion in health care spending.
Like other post-battle ailments, veterans’ weight gain often stems from an uneasy transition to civilian life. Though they’re no longer in battle, they may maintain diets high in fats and carbohydrates, most of which they don’t burn off through physical activity. When left unmitigated, post-traumatic stress disorder may trigger cravings for sweets and other fattening foods. Goldschmidt and her colleagues also said unhealthy habits taken from the battlefield persist. For instance, soldiers often have to eat quickly during chow time, not giving their brain the 20 minutes necessary to signal fullness. Research shows that digesting food in that manner packs on the pounds much quicker.
The CDC says losing as much as 5 percent of body weight can reduce the occurrence of obesity-related chronic conditions. Doing so requires at least an hour of daily physical activity and the maintenance of a balanced diet that includes bread, fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat and fish. These changes have long-term benefits, trimming down waistlines and cutting annual medical costs by $20 billion.
“I have a better understanding about what’s going into the food and the components of the food I’m eating and using in my cooking,” Ray Spaulding, an 85-year-old Air Force veteran, told reporters
. “I will be able to control things like my blood sugar, which is a real trial for me because I like sweets.”
The VA has taken heed to this advice in recent decades, also implementing MOVE!, a weight management program housed in the federal agency’s National Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. Though its nutritional education component has shown some success, a lack of funding and shortage of registered dietitians in Oregon precludes officials from expanding its offerings to 65,000 primary care patients in Portland’s VA health care system.
Financial constraints aren’t just endemic to Portland’s VA. Nationally, a budget shortfall of $3 million complicates the VA’s efforts to meet patient demand. Despite some improvements to its patient health care system, the number of veterans on waitlists for health care at the VA has surged by nearly 50 percent. Reports show that doctor handled 2.7 million more appointments than in previous years. Nearly 900,000 patients have been authorized to seek outside help as a result.
“It would be nice to go from The Dalles to Newport to Bend where we have the rest of our clinics,” Goldschmidt said. “If we were able to do that on a regular basis, there would be far more classes, but we don’t have enough registered dietitians.”