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U study finds linking obesity to military readiness broadens support for child-health policies

vending machine snacksCreative Commons/Ashish JoyThe idea of childhood obesity as a national security issue isn’t some kind of liberal conspiratorial ploy to get conservatives to agree to, say, limiting junk foods in schools.

Childhood obesity is a serious public health problem. But Americans have widely differing opinions about the source of the problem and how to address it — opinions that tend to be determined by political ideology.

As I’ve reported here before, when asked who bears the most responsibility for childhood obesity, conservatives are more likely than moderates or liberals to point the finger at parents and children than at the food and beverage industry or government policies.

Indeed, a 2012 Gallup poll found that 82 percent of Democrats believed it was extremely or very important for the federal government to have programs that address obesity, while only 27 percent of Republicans felt the same.

But there may be a way to bring more conservatives on board with the idea of government taking an active role in reducing childhood obesity. A new study, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health and led by University of Minnesota health-policy researcher Sarah Gollust, suggests that conservatives can be persuaded that government policies are needed to tackle the problem of childhood obesity if the issue is framed in a way that resonates with their core values, particularly their belief in the need for a strong military.

“Most Americans believe childhood obesity is a serious health problem, but there are really strong differences about what to do about it” — differences that are hindering efforts to tackle the problem, said Gollust in a phone interview.

Ensuring that messages about the consequences of childhood obesity include highly ranked conservative concerns, such as national defense, might help health officials create a broader coalition of supporters for government intervention, she added.

And, no, the idea of childhood obesity as a national security issue isn’t some kind of liberal conspiratorial ploy to get conservatives to agree to, say, limiting junk foods in schools. In 2012, a group of retired military leaders came out in favor of just such a policy. Their motivation: One in four 17- to 24-year-old Americans is now too overweight to join the military.

The most persuasive messages

Gollust’s study had two components. First, she and her colleagues used a Web-based public opinion survey to identify and evaluate 11 common messages about the consequences of childhood obesity. The idea was to figure out which of the messages might be most effective in persuading people with different political views that childhood obesity was 1) a serious problem, and 2) a responsibility of the government.

The survey revealed the following key findings:

  • 60 percent of the survey’s respondents said the long-term health risks of obesity (such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease) were strong reasons for government action on the issue. Only 42 percent of conservatives agree with this point, however, compared with 71 percent of liberals and 64 percent of political moderates.
  • Among conservatives, the next most popular reason for government action (selected by just under 42 percent) was that childhood obesity threatens military readiness.
  • Political moderates had a somewhat surprising second choice for why government should get involved in the childhood obesity issue: to reduce the number of obese kids who are targets of bullying (62 percent).
  • Among liberals, the most popular reason for government action (76 percent) was the impact that childhood obesity has on health-care costs.
  • Across the political spectrum, people gave the least credence for government action to messages that claimed such efforts would help reduce racial, ethnic or socioeconomic disparities and discrimination.

Changing opinions

In the second part of the study, Gollust and her colleagues randomly presented 2,500 online participants with news articles that contained the four highest-rated reasons identified in the first study for why the government should act to reduce childhood obesity (long-term health, health-care costs, bullying and military readiness). After reading the articles, the participants were asked about their support for various government policies aimed at addressing the problem, such as requiring a minimum level of physical activity in schools, banning junk-food ads on TV shows aimed at kids and taxing sugar-sweetened beverages.

Sarah Gollust Ph.D.
Sarah Gollust Ph.D.

The study found that all four messages increased the participants’ perceptions of  the seriousness of the problem. But the effect was greatest among conservatives. After reading the articles, their perceptions of the seriousness of the problem tended to be nearly indistinguishable from those of the moderates and the liberals.

Conservatives, however, tended not to change their attitudes about how the problem should be fixed — except when they read the message about the consequences of childhood obesity on military readiness. Only then did they significantly revise their views on whether government agencies, schools, and food and beverage companies should play a role in addressing childhood obesity.

“Our data [suggest] that a message linking a problem traditionally considered under the domain of public health to national defense has the potential to shift public opinion among conservatives,” write Gollust and her co-authors. “This message was likely effective because of its novelty, and also because it tapped into values beyond those — such as equality and social responsibility — that are typically associated with public health.”

The study found that none of the messages about the consequences of childhood obesity significantly shifted the opinions of liberals or moderates about what should be done, probably because those groups already believe the issue to be the responsibility of many segments of society.

Concerns about backlash

One finding from the study raised some concern for Gollust and her colleagues: After reading articles about the consequences of childhood obesity, conservatives believed even more strongly than before that children themselves were responsible for solving the problem. 

“As someone who studies public health communication, I’m very interested in making sure that our public health messages don’t have unintended consequences,” Gollust said.

Health officials will need to be careful, she added, that the messages they create to raise awareness around the issue of childhood obesity don’t lead to a backlash against overweight children, a group that’s already stigmatized.

Still, she said, her study’s findings “do offer a promising look at the possibility that there could be less partisan gridlock and broader support” for policies that offer structural solutions to reducing the burden of obesity in this country.

Gollust's co-authors on this study are Colleen Barry of Johns Hopkins University and Jeff Niederdeppe of Cornell University.

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Comments (4)

Let's take this idea one patriotic step further.

Write legislation that allocates a enough billions to mount a good, solid childhood anti-obesity program.

Fold it into the defense budget in the middle of the night, when no one’s watching, as a military readiness appropriation, the tried-and-true way a lot of legislation is sandwiched into big bills.

Rest assured, no one will read it. Most Senators and Congressmen don't read ANY bills. And the idea of actually reading a military appropriations bill to examine it critically ? Why, it's almost unpatriotic.

There will be no controversy. Both right and left will vote for it without a second thought. The funding will sail through with nary a murmur.

full circle

It is interesting that during WWII the US military found 40% of all recruits were malnourished which was the incentive to start the school lunch program after WWII. As the study pointed out now 25% of draft adults are obese. It is estimated about 5% of the military is obese and obesity in the military can lead to being discharged.
It took the US decades to where we are in our food culture and it certainly won't change over night.

A Fat man at War

I weighed 210 pounds when I joined the Army after graduating high school. I went to basic training and was always a target for the drill instructors. I was different. I was the one who would cause problems in combat. At the start of basic, I failed the PT test. If a person didn’t score at least 350 on the test, they had to repeat basic training in the “fat guy” platoon. I had no intention of going through basic twice. I lost 25 pounds and passed the PT test and went home on leave a lean, somewhat mean, fighting machine. I was sent to Germany to fight the Cold War. I weighted 175 pounds when I got to Germany. 18 months later, I tipped the scales at 250 pounds. It was the beer and snitzels that I had consumed to defeat the boredom of fighting Communism. I figured I could get out of going to war because of my weight. There would’t be combat fatigues big enough to fit me at 290 pounds. Wrong.! I was issued XXX fatigues and sent off to fight. A year in the heat and humidity. I didn’t lose a pound. When it was time to come home, I ran into a problem. Soldiers leaving the war traded fatigues for khaki dress uniforms. They didn’t come in XXX. The Army had fatigues big enough to send me to war, but didn’t have a uniform my size so I could go home.. I was 20 years old but I had the body of a 55-year-old couch potato and had no business being at war but there I was with all the fit people.
Fat people are very angry. If we recruited fat people and unleashed them on the enemy, wars would be over in no time. As my old drill instructor used to say, “Men, It’s not the Army, It’s the people in the Army.”

This is interesting

“Our data [suggest] that a message linking a problem traditionally considered under the domain of public health to national defense has the potential to shift public opinion among conservatives,” write Gollust and her co-authors. “This message was likely effective because of its novelty, and also because it tapped into values beyond those — such as equality and social responsibility — that are typically associated with public health.”

More likely it caused conservatives to consider it a valid reason for government involvement because national defense is an actual, valid, constitutionally-supported role of government, as opposed to the other nanny state reasons given.

But the reason that still only a minority of conservatives (42%) might consider this being a role for government is because conservatives who've actually served in the military realize that it's a moot point. Twenty-five percent of kids may be obese, but those 25% of kids won't be planning on enlisting anyway. It's been my experience that boot camps are populated with an inordinate number of former high school jocks and other physically fit people looking for another competitive challenge.

Plus, recruitment numbers are meeting their goals (thanks to Obama's economy), and even though some enlistees come to boot camp overweight, no one leaves boot camp overweight. So it's not really a national defense issue after all.

And it's not surprising that 82% Democrats believed it was extremely or very important for the federal government to have programs that address obesity and that it's not your fault that you're fat.. The very notion that an individual should take responsibility for their own life is not in their lexicon because it's likely not part of their life experience.