Eating Disorders in Military Service Members
Written by Joleen Wilson, RD/LD, CNSC, CBIS, Dietitian for Pathway to Eating Disorders Treatment at Brookhaven Hospital
According to a recent article from “Rewire”, 865 service members were diagnosed and treated for an eating disorder between the years of 2007 and 2012. A 2001 study published in Military Medicine found that, across four of the five military branches, female soldiers were likely to suffer from bulimia at nearly six times the rate of the general population – or 8.1 percent, compared to 1.5 percent of women and 0.5 percent of men, with the highest number among female Marines. With the military’s regimented routines, discipline, and stringent eating schedules, this can be a breeding ground for eating disorders.
Many service members have traits that are common among individuals with eating disorders (perfectionism, grueling training schedules, and discipline) and they may self-select into the military because of this. The stress associated with deployment and combat may push a service member with these tendencies over the edge. In a 2009 study by Jacobsen et al., it was found that women who were deployed and experienced combat were almost twice as likely to develop an eating disorder as women who were deployed but did not experience combat exposure.
Eating disorder behaviors such as self-induced vomiting are associated with severe health problems and psychological impairment that may be particularly impactful on performance given the physical and cognitive requirements of the military, according to a 2014 article published in Clinical Psychology. Importantly, eating disorders are associated with an increased risk of suicide and have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.
As stated in the Rewire article, many traits that make a good soldier are also the traits known to be associated with eating disorders. The military’s “serve others before you serve yourself” ethos also “plays right into” the illness. Many military members, however, do not report that they have a problem until the disease has advanced for fear of being demoted, unable to deploy, or being dishonorably discharged from the military. This is especially true with male soldiers because an eating disorder is historically thought of as a “woman’s disease”, and, in an environment that aggressively promotes “masculinity”, they have a hard time reporting their symptoms due to the associated stigma.
The above certainly highlights the importance of early screening for eating disorders after trauma and expedited treatment for the condition. The Pathway for Eating Disorders Treatment at Brookhaven Hospital has a specialized team of individuals trained to help service members recover from an eating disorder. We have seen an influx in military members recently and expect to see further increases as the Department of Defense and the public becomes more aware that this is a serious problem for our US Military.