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 army officers.

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 easy.

“But I am optimistic that change is coming, and that in another five years we will definitely see healthier soldiers,” Zarka said.

Now 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 Gamzu.

Zarka then returned to the IDF for his present position.

“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 sausages.”

Zarka noted that a few years ago, the IDF replaced soya oil with the much more nutritious olive and canola oils in all IDF kitchens.

“This alone cost NIS 25 million a year,” said Zarka.

“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 food.

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 than others.

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.”

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