Eating Disorders and the Military: The Battle for Perfection
By Ryan Spiegl, Rader Programs in Oxnard, CA
Research suggests that eating disorders thrive in the military. It’s not difficult to see how a strict, regimented military culture can easily give way to eating disordered behavior. The military demands perfection. Even the famous army slogan, “Be all that you can be,” frames the army as an agent of transformation—you go in a boy or girl and come out a hardened adult.
But getting “army strong” doesn’t happen overnight. The armed forces require soldiers to be in prime physical condition, measured by regular weigh-ins. Both men and women are scrutinized for not just their athletic ability but the numbers that appear on the scale. The pressures to be thin can be compounded by the fact that it is often difficult for soldiers to find foods that are low in calories.
Tamara D. Lauder, MD led a one-year study of more than 420 active female soldiers in the military. The study sought to reveal whether women in the military are at greater risk of developing an eating disorder. The results showed a higher-than-average percentage of eating disordered behavior among military women, roughly equivalent to civilian athletes. Roughly one third of the women surveyed were at risk for abnormal eating behavior. Of the women exhibiting eating disordered behavior:
- 3% had anorexia nervosa
- 9% had bulimia nervosa
- 15% had binge eating disorder
- 33% had an eating disorder not otherwise specified
Though eating disorders are often associated with women, men are hardly immune. Surveys have shown that out of 4,800 active duty men in the Navy, 2.5% suffered from anorexia, 6.8% battled bulimia while 40.8% were declared as having an eating disorder not otherwise specified (NOS).
These results indicate that the military should consider judging physical fitness by other barometers than the ubiquitous weigh-in. People are born with different body types and will be fit at different weights. There is also incongruence between military weigh-ins and the food that is served, which is often high in calories and carbohydrates. Without crafting a healthy meal plan, over-exercise, starvation and purging become some of the only viable options for weight-loss.
The military has always had the goal of molding individuals into “the perfect soldier.” However, it is important to understand that there can’t be a single standard for the perfect male or female soldier. Every soldier is an individual, and when it comes to physical fitness requirements, if their unique physiology isn’t taken into consideration, eating disorders are bound to arise at higher-than-normal rates.
The primary purpose of Rader Eating Disorder Programs is to treat the dysfunctional behavior in a supportive environment. An eating disorder program treatment staff of caring and experienced professionals, many who are recovering themselves, assist the affected individual and their family in developing a life-long program for recovery.
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