The IDF, which in October has held its annual Nutrition and Exercise Month, is
determined to improve the health of soldiers, from recruits through professional
Col. Salman Zarka, a Druse physician from Peki’in and
commander of the IDF’s Center for Medical Services, told The Jerusalem Post this
week in an exclusive interview that soldiers may have developed bad habits –
from smoking to eating junk food and spending much of their youth in front of
the TV set or computer screen.
And changing habits isn’t
“But I am optimistic that change is coming, and that in another
five years we will definitely see healthier soldiers,” Zarka said.
working out of the Tel Hashomer army headquarters, Zarka studied medicine at the
Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s Rappaport Medical Faculty, and later
studied medical administration, public health and epidemiology at various
universities. In the IDF, he was in charge of public health and was medical
commander in the north. Then he was “loaned” to the Health Ministry and worked
as medical assistant to ministry director- general Prof. Ronni
Zarka then returned to the IDF for his present
“One can’t give orders to soldiers about changing habits,
except to insist that they observe all the no-smoking laws that are in place in
civilian life. Fifteen years ago, one had to search hard to find a place where
there was no smoking, including the barracks; but today, it is allowed only
outdoors in certain places,” he explained.
Narghiles (water pipes) are
not sold in IDF canteens (Shekem) and cannot be used on military premises. Asked
why he does not ensure that cigarettes are not sold in Shekem facilities, Zarka
said he “intends to do that,” but it takes time as there are commercial
agreements that have to expire.
“It is difficult to ban smoking
completely from military facilities, as between [the ages of] 18 and 24 around
the world, young people are more likely to smoke. They are away from their
parents’ control, want to try different things and rebel against
authority. But we want soldiers to be as fit to do their jobs as
possible. We also want to get rid of burekas [the margarine-laden potato-
or cheese-filled dough high in unhealthful trans fats] and
Zarka noted that a few years ago, the IDF replaced soya oil
with the much more nutritious olive and canola oils in all IDF
“This alone cost NIS 25 million a year,” said
“Educating and explaining is the best way to get soldiers of all
ages to adopt a healthier lifestyle,” he added.
IDF commanders are much
more aware of good health and how to promote it, but it costs a lot more to do
it. It is unfortunate, he said, that wholegrain bread, rice and pasta and fresh
vegetables cost considerably more than white flour, potato chips and junk
When IDF kitchens tried to replace french fries with baked
potatoes, there was an uproar against it, Zarka recalled.
“But we have
already brought down the consumption of oil in the IDF by 10 percent and
margarine on the table is long gone.”
He is aware of the fact that milk,
unavailable in the IDF (although there is white cheese), should be offered
because it is very nutritious, and that some military bases have healthier food
As for exercise, senior commanders were taken to the Wingate
Institute of Physical Education near Netanya to learn and exercise, and “in my
unit, every Tuesday at 4 p.m., I take my staff to the Yarkon Park to exercise.
We are conducting health surveys of permanent army staffers to check them for
hypertension and other conditions as they get older. We offer workshops to help
smokers quit (including the use of medications), and to exercise and improve
their lifestyles, as well as courses on healthful cooking.”