Madrid, Spain—Elite Spanish troops are being put on a diet.

Soldiers serving with the Spanish Legion, an elite outfit and the Spanish equivalent to the French Foreign Legion, were found to be overweight and undeployable.

In a recent medical and fitness evaluation, the Spanish Army found 180 legionnaires with a Body Mass Index (BMI) score of over 30. Under the BMI’s rationale, the legionnaires are considered obese. More than 3,000 troopers underwent the assessment.

With 8,000 troops, La Legion is famous for its toughness, discipline, and regimental traditions. The unit is divided into four Tercios. (Tercio is a Spanish infantry organisation that traces its roots to 16th century Habsburg Spain). La Tercio de Extranjeros (Tercio of foreigners), specialises in shock tactics. It has been deployed to Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon. During the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, La Legion was closely associated with the Spanish dictatorship. Franco himself commanded the unit in the 1920s.

Today the unit accepts male and female Spanish citizens (foreigners who wish to join must first become Spanish residents—the French Foreign Legion accepts foreigners without any residential preconditions).

An internal memo blamed the unappealing fitness results on the legionnaires’ older age and a lack of fitness facilities.

But “cultural, pathological or even psychological factors” could also be a reason.

The soldiers in question have been placed on a strict diet regime. The intent is to lose between 1 and 2 pounds per week. For breakfast, soldiers will get yogurt with fruits and tostada, a local dish made with bread and tomatoes. Salad and more yoghurt with fruits will be their lunch. As for dinner, the menu includes lean meats, boiled veggies, and more salads. Snacks are limited to cereal bars and fruits, and just tea, coffee, and water are allowed.

“The reaction has been very positive, and the initial results are good,” said a Spanish Army spokesperson.

Individuals will still be responsible for their fitness levels. The diet regime is just “a helping hand,” the Spanish Army spokesperson insisted.

The problem, however, isn’t unique to La Legion. The latest fitness figures for the British army showed that close to 18,000 personnel (22 percent of the force) weren’t fit to be deployed in a war zone.

Of these soldiers, around 8,000 were undeployable due to physical and mental illness, lack of fitness or non-medical reasons. The rest could only be deployed to certain operations.

But is the BMI the best judge of combat effectiveness?

The BMI has four categories: underweight (<18.5), normal weight (18.5-24.9), overweight (25-29.9), and obese (>30).

But a soldier with a high BMI score of 33, for example, may just have a lot of muscle and be as physically fit as a soldier with a 22 BMI score. On the other hand, a soldier with a 22 BMI score may just be tall and/or thin but may lack the extreme fitness required during combat operations.

Adding fuel to the sceptics’ fire, a recent study on recruits by the Greek Army revealed that those with higher BMI scores performed poorer during running and pull-ups but performed equally as well as those with lower BMI scores in swimming. The researchers concluded that “low BMI seems to favour endurance, while an under average BMI would favour muscular fitness.”

In the end, physical fitness, like everything else in life, should be tailored to a person’s needs.