AN EPIDEMIC of obesity could have serious consequences for America's economy and its ability to defend itself, according to a leading politician.
Self-confessed "recovering foodaholic" Mike Huckabee, a Republican Party presidential candidate, told a group of governors from the American South that the increasing numbers of people who were either over-weight or obese meant more and more people were having to take time off work for health reasons.
And Mr Huckabee, who lost 110lb - nearly 8st - several years ago when he was governor of Arkansas, said he was concerned by reports that nearly two-thirds of American military personnel were overweight.
He questioned whether the nation's increasingly obese population would be able to defend itself "if we don't have enough people who are healthy enough to show up and pick up a backpack?"
The Southern Governors' Association convention heard that obesity was creating the first generation of Americans who might not live as long as their parents. Dr William Rowley, who was a vascular surgeon for 30 years and now works at the Institute for Alternative Futures, said 61 per cent of US active-duty military personnel are overweight.
Mr Huckabee, who is among a crowded pack of candidates in the Republican Party race, which also includes former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, actor and former senator Fred Thompson and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, said the statistic disturbed him.
"You've got a serious situation with a generation of kids coming up so unhealthy they won't be able to pass the military physical," he said in an interview after the panel discussion.
"We keep talking about the war on terror - who's going to fight it if we don't have enough people who are healthy enough to show up and pick up a backpack?"
Mr Huckabee - who left office in January after having been governor since July 1996 - implemented a number of programmes to battle weight problems in Arkansas, including having state schools measure students' body fat.
But he worried that not enough was being done to ensure children growing up in the US today were living healthy lifestyles.
"Let me ask this question: who's going to fight it in the future if we're a generation so sick that we don't have the capacity to show up for work?" Mr Huckabee said.
The governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, also a Republican, said during the panel discussion that the eight fattest states in the nation were all in the South. He questioned whether diet was a factor in areas of the country where fried chicken is part of the culture.
"I don't know that fried chicken has anything to do with it," Mr Barbour said. "We weren't raised eating right in the South, but the good news is we can do something about it."
Health has been an early issue in Republican debates.
On Friday, Mr Romney said the government had to help to ensure everyone was covered by health insurance.
He announced healthcare initiatives that would deregulate the insurance market, cap malpractice claims and make sure everyone was insured.
Instead of using federal money to reimburse hospitals for treating people without insurance, he said he wanted the money to be used to help low- income people buy insurance at a lower cost.