Monday, October 04, 2010

Obesity and Fuel Efficiency

In a paper entitled “Obesity and its Relation to Physical Fitness in the U.S. Military” (February 1992) by James A Vogel, stated that obesity, or excess fatness, so prevalent in American society also exists in the U.S. military services.

Prior to World War I, concern focused on inadequate body weight for those entering the service, while excess weight was considered correctable by training after entering the service. During World War II, at least 40% of potential military recruits were undernourished. Since World War II the emphasis has shifted to a concern for overweight, or over fatness. In 1960, for the first time, the Army established a maximum allowable limit for body weight for those entering recruit training.

In 1980 President Carter called for a study of military fitness that resulted in a Department of Defense directive set body fatness goals in addition to body weight standards. Vogel claimed in his paper that obesity as it is commonly perceived has largely disappeared from the military services.

But a lot has changed since 1992. A growing number of potential recruits are too fat to fight. The proportion of recruits rejected for being overweight jumped from 12 percent in 1995 to 21 percent in 2008. Other categories for rejection include failure to graduate from high school and having a criminal record.

According to an AP article from 2005  in 2003, more than 3,000 people were kicked out of the armed forces for being too fat. The article illustrates the overweight trends of the active and reserve components as well as the weight issues plaguing new accessions into military service. A Pentagon report in 2009 said 48,000 military recruits had flunked weight standards since 2005.

Now I would like to draw your attention to a group called Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit group of 130 retired admirals, generals and senior military leaders that promotes health and education for American children. The group released a report in April 2010 called "Too Fat to Fight". It outlines how America's obesity statistics are seen as a security threat. According to retired Rear Adm. James A. Barnett the US “national security in the year 2030 is absolutely dependent on reversing the alarming rates of child obesity."

The report argues that overweight or obese is the leading medical reason why potential recruits fail to qualify for military service. According to the report “when weight problems are combined with educational deficits, criminal records, and other disqualifiers such as asthma or drug abuse, 75 percent of Americans 17 to 24 years old are unable to join the military for one or more reasons.” It also says that over 9 million young adult Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 (which is prime recruiting age) are too fat to join the military. The report emphasizes that the number of states with 40 percent or more of their young adults who were overweight or obese went from one to 39 in a decade.

The report says the military discharges more than 1,200 first-term enlistees each year because of weight problems. The cost of recruiting and training all their replacements to the armed services is about $50,000 per person — or $60 million a year. The prevention of obesity in the military will lead to the increased combat readiness of service members.

You will ask now, what obesity has to do with my blog which is concentrated on the US military energy use. Well, for this, I would like to draw your attention to another issue – obesity and fuel efficiency. Obesity is that it reduces passenger vehicle fuel economy.

In his article in Oil and Gas Journal (Fat weighs on fuel efficiency, Sep 6, 2010) Sam Fletcher points out that “it takes more fuel for big-bellied, broad-butted Bubba to drive around in his full-size pickup truck than for skinny Minnie in her small economy vehicle.”

According to a 2008 study by Prof Sheldon H. Jacobson and Laura McLay growing overweight and obesity rates in the United States continue to increase fuel consumption by adding extra passenger weight to vehicles. And that “More than 1 billion gallons of fuel consumed each year can be attributed to this excess weight.” According to them Americans are approximately an inch taller now than they were in the 1960s. Moreover, nearly 66% of Americans are overweight with a body mass index exceeding 25; nearly 32% are considered obese with a body mass index exceeding 30.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta the US overall estimated prevalence of obesity increased from 19.8% in 2000 to 26.7% today.

True, getting heavier means more fuel consumption by vehicles. What more important is that “The growing obesity problem is a major symptom of our nation’s addiction to oil. We prefer to ride when we should walk.”

Prof Jacobson estimates more than 39 million gal/year of fuel are necessary to transport each additional 1 lb of average gain among US motorists. So, as smaller, lighter alternative vehicles are coming on the market, US residents are getting bigger. This means, obesity is offsetting better fuel economy.

The auto industry has a fuel economy target of 24 mpg for 2011 model light trucks that is expected to save more than 250 million gal/year of fuel. But that savings will be eliminated by increased fuel consumption due to an average weight gain among US residents.

It is interesting that I have never heard any comments on this issue from the people in the US military services focusing on energy, energy efficiency or energy security. They do all you can imagine to improve non-tactical (and tactical) vehicle fuel efficiency and to save energy. Reducing the weight in aircraft and helicopters, using lighter materials for ground vehicles are some of them. And yet there is silence on the impact of human overweight.

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