Guest Post: Obesity is a National and Homeland Security Issue

Obesity is a national and homeland security issue.  Its impact on National Security and homeland security is already large, negative and growing. If it goes unchecked, obesity will destroy us in a way that all the terrorist attacks, cyber hacks and nuclear weapons never could.

There, I’ve said it, and now let me offer you my argument for why.

Through a series of policy decisions, innovations, and a growing complex food system, the United States has moved from a nation of people who were “under-nourished” during and following World War 2 to a nation with more than 100 million obese citizens and another 100 million citizens that are overweight. Recent reporting indicates that the average American woman is now the same weight as the average 1960s man.

 This radical change in our collective condition took place in less than one generation. That change has made us sick, vulnerable, and less secure. 

Just hearing the words “security”, let alone “national and homeland security” can evoke emotional and provocative questions and definitions.  Some say that national security is force projection (offense) and homeland security is force protection (defense).  That's definitely an oversimplification.  However, to assume security is simply about preventing terrorism and waging war is also an oversimplification and demonstrates a lack of depth in understanding security at all.

A well-known concept in security literature is the idea of a meta hazard.  Coined by Dr. Chris Bellavita, a homeland security thought leader, a meta hazard is any social trend or threat that can disrupt the long term stability of the American way of life.  

Obesity and its impact have definitely done that – not instantly, like multiple nuclear warheads, but ever so slowly like a dripping undiagnosed poison.  National and Homeland security is a complex, international if not intergalactic effort and it would be reasonable to use this definition and state as a bench mark for an issue.  I believe obesity meets this criterion.

Anything that Americans spend $1 trillion every year trying – and failing – to fix is a meta hazard.

Something that renders 2/3 of the American population, roughly 200,000,000 Americans unable to serve in a military and/or first responder capacity is a meta hazard.

And something that was virtually a non-issue a generation ago that is now impacting the vast majority of Americans, that’s not only a meta hazard, but a mortal hazard as well.

So the real question isn’t how can obesity and our diet be a homeland security issue, but rather, how can they not be?

Patrick Massey has written about what he calls generational hazards — hazards “created by present generations … [that] take many decades to metastasize before finally reaching a disastrous end-state that impacts future generations.” That sounds a lot like the long term effect of obesity on our population.

How did we get here?  Well, it was a combination of and exploitation of scientific discoveries, misappropriated science, business decisions, economic opportunities, abundance and excess, policy, and finally a dogmatic cognitive dissonance both by researchers and industry that remains steadfast and intact.

Obesity is a complex problem. But treating obesity as a security issue is infinitely more complex because of the grossly misunderstood and highly disruptive interface between politics, industry, medicine, and science.  It’s in this reality that dogma like “Just eat less and exercise more”  or “calories in/calories out” does no one any good.

If we were rapid-sequencing what got us into this mess, I would start with The Depression and World War II, then move to post war industry, use of chemical fertilizers,  farm consolidation, the green revolution, commoditization, the Low Fat  hypothesis, the USDA and the United States Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs or the McGovern committee , Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz fence row to fence row farming, food reductionism or nutritionism, and dogmatic  refusal to recognize that the unparalleled shift in the Standard American Diet,  focusing on carbohydrates, specifically refined ones and severely limiting dietary fat might have a deleterious effect.

With this change in diet came the inversely proportional spike in obesity, diabetes and a host of other maladies.  The bottom line here is obesity, its causes and effects are complex, are incredibly harmful to a society, a meta hazard to a populace, and a national and homeland security issue.  For a more in depth analysis, I invite you to read my MA thesis for the Naval Postgraduate School.


Daniel W. O’Connor, MA is currently employed by the Dept of Homeland Security. He is a graduate of National Preparedness Leadership Initiative from the Harvard Kennedy School and received his Master’s Degree from the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey California where he was the Curtis H. “Butch” Straub Award recipient for exemplary academics, outstanding thesis, and classroom leadership.

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