Col. Gaston Bathalon, N90, NG98, is on the front lines of keeping U.S. Army soldiers in fighting shape. As deputy commander of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass., Bathalon does the science that sets nutrition policy for our armed forces.
Nearly 4,000 soldiers have been discharged from the Army since 2001 because they were overweight and over-fat, according to the Department of the Army. It is a loss of manpower the military can’t afford in wartime. And among those soldiers who did lose weight, evidence suggests some put their health at risk by using laxatives, appetite suppressants and rubber sauna suits to control their weight—behaviors at least as dangerous as carrying extra pounds. Bathalon’s research found that 71 percent of the more than 1,400 troops referred to the Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, N.C., for weight loss reported skipping meals, and 31 percent reported fasting to help control their weight.
To reverse these trends, Bathalon surveyed soldiers to determine why they gained the weight in the first place. For one thing, Bathalon believes the stigma attached to the Army Weight Control Program—where soldier are automatically enrolled when they fail one of their twice—yearly weigh-ins—isn’t helping. Soldiers enrolled in the program can’t get promoted, assume command positions, attend professional development schools or receive awards.
Overweight soldiers’ careers are on the line—and they know it. "I eat because I’m depressed, and I’m depressed because I eat," one soldier wrote in Bathalon’s survey.
"That hits you right here," he said, resting one hand on his camouflage-covered chest. "My focus is on whether the policy is fair and right. And if not, how can it be?"
It’s an attitude he honed during his years at Tufts. Born and raised on a farm in Vermont, Bathalon was always interested in food and nutrition. After studying nutrition at the University of Vermont, he received a direct commission into the Army Medical Specialist Corps, where he worked as a dietitian. At a meeting of the American Dietetic Association, Bathalon met William Evans, then chief of the Human Physiology Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts. Before long, Bathalon was working on his master’s degree and doing research in Evans’ lab.
After completing his master’s in human nutrition sciences in 1990, Bathalon became the clinical instructor for the Army Dietetic Internship at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. But Evans, as well as his mentor, Lt. Col. Gale Partridge, urged him to get a Ph.D. By the fall of 1992, Bathalon was back at Tufts. In the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the HNRCA, he looked at the long-term consequences of self-imposed dieting in postmenopausal women.
Now the first dietitian to have chaired the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine’s Human Use Review Committee, Bathalon has been at the Natick facility since 1998.
Bathalon’s surveys showed that soldiers face challenges unique to the military when it comes to controlling their weight. The largest number of soldiers said they gained weight as the result of injury or illness that prevented them from working out. Because a hurt soldier can’t necessarily run, walk or work out, Bathalon advocates a preventative approach.
"We need to be partnering with doctors to counsel soldiers in rehab to keep the weight off," he said.
On the home front, some soldiers reported they gained weight as the result of the frequent moves that come with reassignment— as often as every two years. But almost a third of the soldiers surveyed said they gained weight because they were deployed.
"If you put people in a war zone, away from their families, and they happen to be stress-eaters, they will likely see weight gain," said Bathalon, who noted that three-quarters of soldiers enrolled in the Army Weight Control Program struggled with their weight before enlisting.
"There is clearly not one way for everybody," he said. "The more options we can provide based on people’s different needs and psychology, I think the better we can help them."