The rising obesity epidemic in the general population is not slowing down and there are many theories as how people's behavior can be changed to avert a problem that leads to lifelong health effects. According to the CDC more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) are obese. In 2008, medical costs associated with obesity were estimated at $147 billion; the medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.

The rate of obesity in the military hovers around 13 percent and can result in career setbacks, reduced operational readiness and jeopardizes the security of the United States. Because of this a team of experts has used the military mess hall as a laboratory for changing eating habits and helping people to shed the pounds and become healthier.

"Many studies have tested the effect of dietary, informational, and environmental interventions on the eating behaviors of customers in civilian worksite and university cafeterias," says lead investigator Major Aaron Crombie, PhD, RD, Military Nutrition Division, US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, Natick, MA. "However, studies to date testing such interventions in military dining facilities (DFACs) have been very limited and inconclusive. Our study aimed to address that information gap."

The team from the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center used five dining halls at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

The changes they made were:

  • Increased availability of fresh fruit
  • Increased availability and variety of vegetables
  • Increased availability of whole-grain foods
  • Reduced availability of foods with high dietary fat and sugar
  • Offering one main lean meat or vegetarian entrée at lunch and dinner with no added fat
  • Placement of color-coded "Go for Green" nutritional information cards at the point of service

Reseachers found that there was "significant improvement in soldiers' nutritional intake, including decreases in fat and customer satisfaction increased on four areas including flavor and taste, available choices, low-fat food availability, and appropriate portion sizes."

Major Crombie concluded that "The results of this study give credence to the idea that DFAC food service interventions can promote a healthy lifestyle and, in turn, optimize the health profile of warfighters. Although intakes of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains continue to be problematic, reductions in energy and fat intake may prove effective over the long term in combating the obesity problem."

The research was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and can be found here.