Eating Disorders in the Military

There are approximately 1.5 million active personnel in the United States military, and about 200,00 of these are women. Additionally, statistics reveal that there are 22 million citizens who have served in the military, which adds up to approximately seven percent of all living Americans who have served their country at some point in their lives. Whether serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard, military personnel risk their lives to fight for our country. Mental health disorders such as depression and posttraumatic stress disorder are relatively common in military members, and studies have shown that approximately one in four active-duty members showed signs of a mental health condition. Over the years, the stigma of seeking help for a mental health disorder has changed dramatically. Military members are encouraged to speak to a counselor or a physician if they are experiencing signs of mental health disorder and studies have shown that 97% of military members who have sought help did not experience any negative career impact.

In the past, unfortunately, many individuals with mental health disorders would be discharged from the military; however, the legislature has been put into place to protect our servicemen and women. Although mental health awareness is quite high among military members, eating disorders are not as well recognized. The military, much like professional sports, appears to be an environment where eating disorders are more likely to develop. The environment fosters severe pressures to attain and maintain peak physical condition marked with regular weigh-ins. Discipline, rank, teamwork, strict regimens, and designated rules are all factors of control and perfection, which are linked to developing an eating disorder. Additionally, the extreme stress of being away from home and being in combat or threatening situations can harvest harmful coping mechanisms resulting in unhealthy eating behaviors.

Statistics on eating disorders among military personnel

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “A survey of 3,000 women in the military found that over 60% of respondents had an eating disorder, and in the Marine Corps alone, 97.5% met the criteria for an eating disorder”. Other studies have shown that approximately 30% of women in the military suffer from an eating disorder. Eating disorders affect both men and women in all branches of the military however a study shows that female soldiers are six times more likely to be diagnosed with bulimia nervosa than women in the general population, with even higher numbers among female marines. Bulimia nervosa is the second most common eating disorder among women and parallels with strict rules, a need for control, and a perfectionist personality. The average marine training includes 12 weeks of basic training followed by a 59-day infantry, or 29-day combat course and marines are usually the first military personnel to be on the ground during a conflict. Binge Eating Disorder is the most common eating disorder and is prevalent among men and women in the military; however, specific statistics are difficult to obtain. Unlike bulimia nervosa where individuals are obsessed with being in control, feeling out of control, and using food as an escape route characterizes binge eating disorder.

What is bulimia nervosa?

Bulimia nervosa is a serious emotional eating disorder that involves eating excessive amounts of food in a short period (binging) followed by guilt and shame leading to self-induced vomiting, extreme exercise, or laxative abuse (purging). Many refer to it as the binge and purge eating disorder. It is possible for an individual diagnosed with bulimia nervosa to consume as much as 3,400 calories in little more than an hour, and as much as 20,000 calories in eight hours. Dozens of donuts, boxes of cupcakes, multiple bags of chips, ten candy bars and multiple boxes of cookies are some everyday items that are consumed within these two hours. It is common for individuals to binge eat when they are not physically full or eat these large amounts of food until they are uncomfortably full. Individuals with bulimia nervosa usually binge alone and even in hiding out of fear and embarrassment someone may see them. Guilt, shame, depression, and feelings of disgust usually accompany the individual immediately after the binge episode. Bulimia nervosa is often associated with depression, anxiety, and self-harm behaviors such as cutting.

What is binge eating disorder?

Binge-eating disorder is characterized by eating an excessive amount of food within 2 hours and is associated with an extreme lack of self-control and shame during this episode. Unlike bulimia and anorexia nervosa, there is no compensatory purging such as self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, or laxative abuse associated with binge-eating disorder. For a binge-eating disorder to be diagnosed, an individual must partake in binging episodes on average at least once a week for a three-month duration. The individual must have feelings of marked distress over these binging episodes and have a loss of control over the amount of food they eat.

How military personnel can seek help for their eating disorder

Being active in the military does not mean you have to be perfect and the strongest individual around. Yes, it takes an enormous amount of dedication, teamwork, and physical fitness; however, if you are exhibiting signs of an eating disorder, it is imperative you seek help from a doctor or a counselor. Ignoring these unhealthy behaviors cannot only put your physical and mental health at risk, but you can also risk the safety of your fellow teammates as well as your country. By talking about an eating disorder and seeking treatment, you can help lessen the stigma associated with eating disorders in the military. After all, if an eating disorder can occur among the strongest individuals in the military, then they can affect everyone.