Eating Disorders in the Military: The Secret War Our Soldiers Are Fighting

Posted By Kantorlaw || 4-Dec-2013

As reported by ABC news on February 8, 2012, Jenifer Beaudean's bulimia began when she was a third-year cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. She felt pressure from her family, school and peers to "make the uniform look good," she said this, understandably, affected her self-image.

Beaudean recalls that at a routine weigh-in held to ensure cadets are maintaining the standard height-weight balance, her weight was above the desired number so she had to be "taped" -- meaning a measuring tape was used to ensure her waist size matched regulations proportional to her height. This constant pressure to maintain her weight below certain prescribed, unrealistic numbers, led her to her first purging experience in her dorm. Unbelievably, although female height-weight standards differ by numbers from men, women are expected to maintain standards equivalent to male soldiers.

For 13 years and throughout her seven-year Army career, Beaudean, now 43, of Southbury, Conn., battled the cycle of binging and purging. "Although I was a good and healthy weight, it felt like I couldn't be thin enough," said Beaudean, who has documented her disorder in her memoir, "Whatever the Cost." "Every success was diminished by a number on the scale."

As reported by the National Eating Disorder Association, as many as 10 million women and 1 million men in the U.S. battle anorexia or bulimia, and at least 15 million more struggle with binge eating disorder. Millions more practice disordered eating because of an obsession with dieting. Moreover, ever increasing evidence suggests that eating disorders are higher among service members than among civilians.

Hard statistical data on exact numbers of military personnel effected by eating disorders is presently hard to obtain, but previous research suggests female service members are 4 percent more likely to develop an eating disorder than females not in the service.

"There are both men and women with active eating disorders," said Dr. Kim Dennis, medical director of Timberline Knolls, a residential eating disorder treatment center in Lemont, Ill. "It's a lot easier to hide an eating disorder than an alcohol and drug problem."

A review published in 2008 looking at nearly a decade of medical data from service members diagnosed with an eating disorder, suggested that the diagnosis of eating disorders among service members doubled from 1998 to 2006, although the number remained relatively small. A majority of those diagnosed were Marines. A 2009 study by officers at the Naval Post Graduate School found that nearly one in three Marines turned to excessive and, at times, unhealthy methods to meet the weight standards.

Experts said a combination of environmental and traditional factors place soldiers, especially women, at higher risk for developing an eating disorder than any other group of people. Women who report feeling deployment stress may be at higher risk for developing eating problems and weight loss, according to a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

An estimated 14 percent of active duty military personnel are women, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. According to Dennis, eating disorders among women in the military are underreported and often difficult to detect.

"I think that goes hand in hand with denial and minimization of eating disorders," said Dennis, whose facility sees a substantial amount of women in the military. "They're more recognized as having a substance disorder."

The military, much like professional sports, appears to be an environment where eating disorders are more likely to develop, according to experts. The environment cultivates severe pressures to attain and maintain peak physical condition marked with regular weigh-ins.

In a March 6, 2013 article published by NEDA written by Teresa Hornick, "Raising Eating Disorder Awareness on a Naval Base" (See more at: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/raising-eating-disorder-awareness-naval-base#sthash.1FVW5w2d.MQo5PiRp.dpuf), Hornick recounts a panel discussion on February 7, 2013 at the Norfolk Virginia Naval Base with both she, Dr. Kim Dennis and other experts in the field. They spoke to a full house and the crowd was eager to learn more about the featured topic.

Of those present, approximately 1/3 had a colleague affected by an eating disorder. Hornick shared her personnel struggle with bulimia while in the military and how her high standards and desire to always perform at the top of her game, led to her quiet suffering with bulimia nervosa.

Panelists discussed how the military will support someone suffering with alcoholism, post-traumatic stress and depression, however, an eating disorder is often masked by all the above conditions. Eating disorders also require treatment by someone trained, so it is critical for the military to provide access to care, separate and apart from (or in concert with) care for those struggling with PTSD or alcoholism.

"If an eating disorder can happen among the best of us, then truly, eating disorders are everywhere," said Beaudean. "It is everywhere in every walk of life, often in secret."

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