Providing U.S. military troops with healthier food choices is a matter of national security.

That became clear earlier this week when a top military health official and First Lady Michelle Obama teamed up during a visit to the Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas to announce that healthy changes will be coming to the menus of the 1,100 dining halls at military bases across the nation.

The good news is that thanks to these changes, which will be put into place in the coming months, service members, their families, and military retirees will see more fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains and lower-fat entree choices in the dining halls.

Healthier choices will also be available at vending machines, restaurants and snack bars at bases and posts. In addition, the campaign will include a program to teach military children how to make better food choices and maintain fitness.

For the military, it’s an all-out battle against a formidable enemy: obesity. And winning it is a top priority because service members need to be in good shape to defend their country.

During the unveiling of the new anti-obesity campaign, Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, put the spotlight on the problem of the increasing rates of obesity in the military population, coupled with a history of poor nutritional choices in both the military and civilian populations.

He didn’t waffle when he said that this unhealthy combination “is affecting readiness.”

He called up some numbers to bolster the reasons the campaign is so important: nearly 30 percent of potential military recruits, ages 17 to 24, weigh too much to meet military weight standards. In addition, the services have to discharge about 1,200 entry-level candidates each year because they can’t meet fitness standards.

Added to that, 20 percent of active-duty and National Guard military health-system beneficiaries between the ages of 40 and 49 are obese, according to an article in Navy Times. To make matters worse, more than 40 percent of military retirees in that same age group have been diagnosed as obese, according to the same article.

On the financial ledgers, that adds up to a lot of money. The Defense Department estimates that the department spends $1.4 billion on medical care for weight-related problems and conditions among its beneficiaries.

Woodson wants to see that turned around.

“We are intent on focusing on preventable illnesses to help our people stay out of our clinics and hospitals by improving their physical condition,” he said in a news release about the campaign to improve nutrition standards across the armed services for the first time in 20 years.

First Lady Michelle Obama also took the opportunity to point out the importance of better nutritional choices and healthier eating habits.

“There are big national security and budget implications,” she said during her visit to the Little Rock Air Force Base, which was chosen for the unveiling of the campaign because it has been experimenting with healthful food choices.

In the news release about the campaign, First Lady Obama said that whenever “our men and women in uniform step forward, Americans take notice.”

“When our service members make healthy eating a priority in their lives, the rest of us are more likely to make it a priority in our lives,” she said. “Simply put, this is America’s entire military once again stepping forward to lead by example.

In an email to Food Safety News, Department of Defense spokesperson Cynthia O. Smith said that the department is shifting its focus from “health care” to “health.” In other words, from simply delivering healthcare services to fostering health in the nation’s military family population.

As such, the department is tackling obesity not only as a health issue but also as a military readiness issue.

The campaign will feature cooperative efforts with each of the armed services, as well as partners in the Military Community and Family Policy. The goal is to encourage service members, retired beneficiaries and dependents to make better nutritional choices and to take a more active role in their personal health.

In other words, each and every service member, as well as their family members, and military retirees, is being asked to join in the battle against obesity.

This is not the first time the military has stepped forward to improve the nutrition of service members. In fact, the free school-lunch program had its roots in national defense.

With so many World War II recruits coming into the service malnourished, the school-lunch program was seen as one way to remedy that.

Since then, the size of some of the recruits has changed, going from skinny to fat. With that in mind, the military supported the Child Nutrition Act, which among other things provides more money for healthy school lunches.

The message from the military to Congress was that too many of the young soldiers are overweight and out of shape — and that one of the best ways to solve that problem was through healthy school lunches.