Eating disorders in the military may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about challenges facing veterans, but the reality is both startling and concerning. According to recent studies, between 10-28% of veterans are grappling with some form of eating disorder, a rate that is significantly higher compared to the general population.
It is estimated that around 20% of women veterans exhibit probable symptoms of an eating disorder, compared 9% of male veterans.
In the structured world of service, the rigorous physical standards, emphasis on control and discipline, and strong focus on masculinity. This can inadvertently foster an environment where eating disorders in the military develop. Military personnel often face unique stresses, including traumatic experiences and the disruption of normal eating patterns, which can contribute to these disorders.
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The isolation felt during service and the challenges faced when transitioning to civilian life further exacerbate the risk. As a result, many veterans find themselves grappling with complex issues related to food, body image, and mental health.
In this post, we’ll cover the ways military life can contribute to eating disorders and subsequent substance abuse and what these disorders are. We’ll also cover how our veterans and heroes can recover from eating disorders in the military.
If you or a loved one are a veteran who suffers from PTSD, mental illness, and/or an eating disorder, call Heroes’ Mile at 407-593-7105 today to find out more about our inpatient treatment options. If you would prefer we call you, take our Depression Test, and we’ll follow up if you qualify.
Eating Disorders in the Military
In the military, the rigorous demands of service and the unique challenges of life in uniform can leave a lasting imprint on veterans’ health and well-being.
Among these impacts are eating disorders in the military, which manifest in various forms, each with its own set of challenges. From Anorexia Nervosa to Orthorexia, these disorders not only stem from the military environment but also evolve in unique ways as veterans transition to civilian life.
Understanding these disorders, their symptoms, treatments, and particularly their interaction with veteran experiences is crucial for providing effective support and care.
Here, we delve into each disorder, shedding light on how they develop and are treated, with a special focus on their prevalence and manifestation in the veteran community.
Anorexia Nervosa Definition
Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight and a severe restriction of food intake, leading to significantly low body weight. It’s often accompanied by a distorted body image.
Anorexia Nervosa Symptoms
Symptoms include extreme weight loss, thin appearance, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness or fainting, blue discoloration of the fingers, hair that thins, breaks or falls out, and absence of menstruation among females.
Anorexia Nervosa Treatment
Treatment typically involves a combination of psychological therapy, nutritional education, and medical monitoring. Family-based therapy is often effective, along with individual counseling.
Anorexia Nervosa in Veterans
In the military, the focus on physical fitness and weight standards can sow the seeds for anorexia, with veterans continuing these restrictive behaviors post-service. The transition to civilian life can exacerbate these tendencies, as veterans may use food control as a means to manage the loss of military structure and identity.
Bulimia Nervosa Definition
Bulimia Nervosa involves a cycle of binge eating large quantities of food in a short period, followed by purging through vomiting, fasting, or excessive exercise.
Bulimia Nervosa Symptoms
Symptoms include frequent episodes of eating abnormally large amounts of food followed by a feeling of a loss of control, fear of gaining weight, self-induced vomiting, and excessive exercise.
Bulimia Nervosa Treatment
Treatment often includes psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), nutritional education, and medication like antidepressants.
Bulimia Nervosa in Veterans
The stress and trauma associated with military service can trigger bulimic behaviors as a coping mechanism. For veterans, these behaviors might serve as a way to handle emotional upheaval and the challenges of adapting to civilian life.
Binge Eating Disorder
Binge Eating Disorder Definition
Binge Eating Disorder is marked by regular episodes of binge eating without the subsequent purging seen in bulimia.
Binge Eating Disorder Symptoms
Symptoms include eating large amounts of food rapidly, to the point of discomfort; eating when not hungry and to the point of feeling uncomfortably full; and feeling distressed, ashamed, or guilty about eating.
Binge Eating Disorder Treatment
Treatment can involve psychotherapy, such as CBT, interpersonal psychotherapy, and sometimes medications like antidepressants or anti-seizure drugs.
Binge Eating Disorder in Veterans
Veterans may develop binge eating disorder as a response to stress, anxiety, or depression. The loss of structured eating patterns in the military and difficulties in adjusting to civilian life can contribute to the development of this disorder.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder
Body Dysmorphic Disorder Definition
Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is an intense preoccupation with one or more perceived flaws in physical appearance, which are not observable or appear slight to others.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder Symptoms
According to the DSM-5, Body Dysmorphic Disorder is characterized by preoccupation with one or more perceived defects or flaws in physical appearance that are either not observable or really appears slight to other people.
Symptoms include preoccupation with physical appearance, strong belief that you have a defect in your appearance that makes you ugly, and frequent examination of yourself in the mirror.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder Treatment
Treatment typically involves CBT and medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Body Dysmorphic Disorder in Veterans
The military’s emphasis on physical fitness and appearance can exacerbate BDD. After leaving the service, veterans may continue to obsess over perceived physical flaws as a way of coping with the loss of the military’s structured environment.
Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED)
OSFED encompasses eating disorders that do not meet the full criteria for anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder but are equally serious.
Symptoms vary widely but often include behaviors characteristic of other eating disorders, such as food restriction, binge eating, or purging, without meeting the full diagnostic criteria for those disorders.
Treatment depends on the specific symptoms and might include psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and medication.
OSFED in Veterans
Veterans might develop OSFED due to the unique stressors of military life and the transition back to civilian living. These disorders can manifest in various ways, often as a response to the loss of structure and identity post-service.
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
ARFID is characterized by a failure to meet appropriate nutritional and/or energy needs, leading to weight loss, nutritional deficiency, dependence on supplemental feeding, or marked interference with psychosocial functioning.
Symptoms include a lack of interest in eating or food, avoidance based on the sensory characteristics of food, and concern about aversive consequences of eating.
Treatment often involves a multidisciplinary approach including nutritional therapy, psychotherapy, and family therapy, focusing on gradually increasing the variety of foods in the diet.
ARFID in Veterans
ARFID in veterans can develop from traumatic experiences related to food or eating during service, such as restrictive eating in challenging environments or negative experiences with certain types of food.
Obesity is a complex condition involving an excessive amount of body fat. It’s not always classified as an eating disorder, but it can be related to unhealthy eating patterns.
Symptoms include a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, shortness of breath, increased sweating, snoring, inability to cope with sudden physical activity, and fatigue.
Treatment includes lifestyle and behavioral changes, dietary modifications, physical activity, medication, and sometimes surgery.
Obesity in Veterans
Veterans may face obesity due to lifestyle changes after leaving the structured environment of the military, combined with factors like stress, mental health disorders, and physical injuries that limit activity.
Orthorexia is characterized by an obsessive focus on healthy eating, where individuals develop an extreme fixation on the quality and purity of their food.
Symptoms include compulsively checking ingredient lists and nutritional labels, cutting out an increasing number of food groups, and spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events.
Treatment can involve psychotherapy to address the underlying anxiety and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, as well as nutritional counseling to ensure a balanced diet.
Orthorexia in Veterans
For veterans, orthorexia may emerge as a means of maintaining control and a connection to the disciplined lifestyle of the military. The transition to civilian life can intensify these tendencies as they seek to retain some aspect of their military regimen.
Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse
The relationship between eating disorders and substance abuse is complex and deeply intertwined, especially in the context of veterans. Both disorders can be ways of coping with emotional pain, stress, or trauma, and unfortunately, one can often exacerbate the other.
Overlap and Interaction
Eating disorders and substance abuse share common risk factors, including anxiety, depression, and a need for control or escape from reality. Substance abuse may begin as a method to manage the distress or body image issues associated with an eating disorder.
Conversely, the disordered eating patterns and psychological distress of an eating disorder can lead to substance abuse as a form of self-medication. This cycle creates a dangerous feedback loop, where each disorder fuels the severity of the other.
Substance abuse can worsen the physical and psychological consequences of eating disorders in the military. For instance, substances like alcohol or drugs can disrupt healthy eating habits and further distort body image perceptions.
Moreover, the physiological effects of substance abuse can compound the nutritional deficiencies and health complications caused by eating disorders.
Context for Veterans
For veterans, the likelihood of encountering this overlap can be higher due to the unique stresses of their military experiences and the challenges of transitioning to civilian life.
The military environment often fosters a culture of self-reliance and stoicism, which might lead veterans to self-medicate with substances rather than seek help for mental health issues, including eating disorders in the military.
The transition to civilian life can also be a trigger, as veterans grapple with identity loss, loneliness, or unresolved trauma, potentially leading to the development or exacerbation of both substance abuse and eating disorders.
Comprehensive Treatment Approach
Recognizing the intertwined nature of these disorders is essential in treating veterans. A comprehensive treatment approach that addresses both eating disorders in the military and substance abuse concurrently is vital.
This approach can include a combination of psychotherapy, medical treatment, nutritional counseling, and support groups. Tailoring these treatments to the specific needs and experiences of veterans, acknowledging their unique service-related challenges, and providing a supportive community are key factors in facilitating recovery and fostering long-term well-being.
Heroes’ Mile’s Approach to Treating Eating Disorders in the Military
At Heroes’ Mile, we understand that eating disorders in the military are not just a challenge to physical health, but serious mental illnesses that can have life-threatening consequences. Recognizing the urgency of treatment, our center in DeLand, Florida, offers specialized care for veterans battling disorders like Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder. What sets us apart is our veteran-exclusive focus, ensuring that our approach is finely tuned to the unique experiences and needs of military personnel.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
At the heart of our treatment program is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This evidence-based approach helps veterans understand and change the thought patterns that contribute to their disordered eating. By addressing the interplay of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, CBT guides veterans towards healthier lifestyles and coping strategies.
Our group therapy sessions are a cornerstone of treatment, where veterans can share experiences and learn from each other. These sessions are crucial for identifying and altering maladaptive thought patterns, helping veterans replace self-destructive habits with constructive ones.
Understanding the importance of nutrition, we offer nutritional therapy sessions. These are designed to help veterans find balanced ways to nourish their bodies, focusing on health and well-being rather than restrictions.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Alongside our focus on eating disorders in the military, we address underlying anxiety disorders, including PTSD. ACT helps in managing these symptoms, easing the treatment of eating disorders concurrently.
Our program includes stress-relieving exercise routines, ensuring that physical activity is part of recovery without becoming a compulsive or harmful behavior.
Comprehensive Care and Services
Our facility provides full-time medical and nursing care, along with aftercare planning and transitional living options. A nutritional assessment and personalized food plans are integral to our approach.
We offer an array of therapies, including individual and family counseling, intensive relapse prevention, trauma-informed therapy, spiritual healing, and awareness. These diverse modalities ensure a holistic treatment experience.
Supportive Groups and Activities
Our treatment extends beyond traditional therapy. We incorporate peer recovery support, recreational therapy, and equine therapy, promoting healing in various dimensions.
At Heroes’ Mile, we pride ourselves on an organized, honest, and compassionate approach to treating eating disorders in the military.
Our goal is not just to manage symptoms but to enable veterans to return to healthier weights and improved quality of life. By understanding the military mindset and the specific challenges veterans face, our program stands out as a beacon of hope and healing.
Our exploration of the complex world of eating disorders in the military, particularly in the context of veteran life, underscores the need for specialized care and understanding. We’ve delved into the various forms these disorders can take, how they intertwine with substance abuse, and the unique ways they manifest in veterans. Most importantly, we’ve highlighted the comprehensive and empathetic approach Heroes’ Mile takes in treating these disorders, emphasizing a veteran-exclusive focus.
If you or a loved one are a veteran struggling with an eating disorder, PTSD, or any mental health challenges, remember that help is available, and recovery is possible. Heroes’ Mile is committed to providing the support and care that veterans need to reclaim their health and well-being. Our team, all of whom are veterans themselves, understands the unique challenges you face and is ready to help you on your journey to recovery.
Take Action Today: Don’t wait to seek help. Call Heroes’ Mile at 407-593-7105 to learn more about our inpatient treatment options tailored specifically for veterans. Our lines are always open for you or your loved ones to start the conversation towards recovery.
Eating Disorder Test: If you’re unsure where to start or would prefer we reach out to you, consider taking our online Eating Disorder Test. This simple step can be the start of your journey towards healing. We’ll follow up if you qualify, ensuring you get the support and care you need.
Reaching out for help is a sign of strength. At Heroes’ Mile, we’re ready to stand with you, offering the guidance, support, and care that can make all the difference. You’ve served your country; now let us serve you on your path to recovery.
Eating disorders are relatively common, though the prevalence can vary depending on the specific disorder and the population being studied.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), in the United States:
- About 1% of American women suffer from anorexia nervosa in their lifetime.
- Approximately 1-5% of American women experience bulimia nervosa.
- Binge-Eating Disorder (BED) is believed to be the most common, affecting 3.5% of women and 2% of men in the U.S.
Eating disorders are psychiatric conditions. They cause severe and ongoing disruptions in eating behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. These disorders often manifest as an extreme focus on food, body shape, or weight. They can also include a range of extreme eating behaviors and unhealthy ways to manage weight.
Eating disorders are complex conditions influenced by a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors. While they are not solely determined by genetics, research has indicated that genetic factors can play a significant role.
- Genetic Predisposition: Studies have found that individuals with a family history of eating disorders are at a higher risk of developing one themselves.
- Twin Studies: Research on identical twins, who share 100% of their genes, has shown that if one twin has an eating disorder, the other is more likely to develop one compared to fraternal twins, who share about 50% of their genes.
- Genetic Markers: Some research suggests that specific genetic markers may be associated with a higher risk of developing eating disorders, although no single “eating disorder gene” has been identified.
- Neurobiological Factors: Certain neurotransmitters, which are influenced by genetics, have been implicated in eating disorders. For example, serotonin imbalances are commonly found in individuals with eating disorders.
- Temperament: Inherited personality traits such as perfectionism or impulsivity can increase vulnerability to eating disorders.
- Co-Occurrence: Eating disorders often co-occur with other issues that have a genetic basis, such as anxiety disorders or depression.
However, it’s crucial to note that genetics are just one piece of the puzzle. Environmental triggers such as societal pressure, family dynamics, and traumatic experiences also play significant roles in the onset and perpetuation of eating disorders.
Supporting someone with an eating disorder is a sensitive and challenging task that often requires a nuanced approach. Ultimately, your goal is to keep yourself or a loved one safe by directing them to a medical professional, but here are some general guidelines that could help:
- Educate Yourself: Understanding the complexities of eating disorders can prepare you for the emotional and psychological challenges ahead.
- Open Dialogue: Choose a private and comfortable setting to talk openly and honestly, using “I” statements to express concern rather than accusatory language.
- Avoid Food and Body Talk: Keep the focus on the person’s feelings and well-being rather than their eating habits or appearance.
- Encourage Professional Help: Suggest they consult with healthcare providers like a doctor, psychologist, or a certified eating disorder specialist for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
- Offer Emotional Support: Reinforce that you’re there for them, but be prepared for possible denial or resistance.
- Set Boundaries: It’s important to protect your own emotional well-being too. Make it clear what you can and can’t offer in terms of support.
- Be Consistent: Your loved one will need ongoing support; recovery is a long process that comes with ups and downs.
- Involve Other Support Systems: Support groups and family therapy may provide additional layers of support and understanding.
- Maintain Regular Life: As much as possible, encourage the individual to maintain their friendships, hobbies, and activities.
- Monitor Your Behavior: Make sure you’re not inadvertently contributing to their disorder by making comments on their eating habits or body size.
- Consult Experts for Your Own Support: Speaking to professionals can help you understand the best ways to offer support while also taking care of yourself.
- Be Patient and Prepared for Setbacks: Recovery is often a long process filled with setbacks. Be prepared for them and continue offering your support.
Remember, while you can be a valuable source of support, you’re not a substitute for professional treatment. It’s crucial for anyone dealing with an eating disorder to consult qualified medical professionals for diagnosis and treatment.
If you think you may have an eating disorder, it’s crucial to consult a qualified medical professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. However, if you believe you or a loved one may be suffering from eating disorders, and are considering consulting a medical professional, also consider these questions:
- Am I preoccupied with food, dieting, and body size?
- Do I engage in secretive eating behaviors?
- Have I lost or gained a significant amount of weight recently without a medical reason?
- Do I feel anxious or guilty about eating?
- Am I avoiding meals or social situations involving food?
- Do I feel compelled to exercise excessively?
- Have there been changes in my menstrual cycle (for those applicable)?
- Am I experiencing physical symptoms like dizziness, fatigue, or hair loss?
- Do I use food to cope with stress or emotional issues?
- Is my eating pattern affecting my social life, work, or physical health?
If you or a loved one identify with several of these questions, it may be a sign that you should seek professional advice.