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Disordered Eating Behaviors in the Military: The Real Impact

disordered eating behaviors

Disordered eating behaviors have become prevalent in our society. Behaviors like skipping meals or following extreme restrictions are not only normal; we accept them as “healthy.”

As a microcosm of our country, the military isn’t immune from its effects. Military personnel are at a higher risk for developing disordered eating behaviors than civilians, according to a review on weight bias in the military

The 2020 report explained: “The military population is at elevated risk for unsafe dieting behaviors, eating disorders, and mood disorders. Bulimia nervosa rates, as well as the use of laxatives, fasting, and purging, are reportedly higher in the military than in the civilian population.”

Here’s what you need to know about disordered eating, its effects on service members, and how it ultimately impacts mission readiness. 

What is Disordered Eating?

Disordered eating is not the same as eating disorders, which are clinically diagnosed mental health issues based on “behavioral conditions characterized by severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviors and associated distressing thoughts and emotions.” Common eating disorders include Binge Eating Disorder, Anorexia Nervosa, and Bulimia Nervosa. 

Disordered eating is a set of unhealthy food and body behaviors. The goal is most often to become “healthier” or lose weight. We have come to normalize many of these behaviors, some of which include:

Chronic Dieting

This eating behavior is pervasive and all too common. More than likely, we have all encountered someone who seems as though they are always on a diet. Chronic dieting can lead to a vicious cycle of restriction, cravings, feeling shame for eating more than a diet allows, and eventually starting a new diet. It can also lead to a higher risk of heart disease, eating disorders, muscle loss, body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and nutrient deficiencies.

Food Rigidity and Restrictions

Dieting programs, such as paleo and keto, are two examples of disordered eating as both are restrictive in what they allow. Categorizing foods as “good” or “bad,” as many diets have over the decades, distorts our relationship with food.

These dieting programs are touted as a healthier alternative to traditional dieting. Unfortunately, they still adhere to restrictive rules, such as:

  • Intermittent fasting

  • Only eating sweets on certain days

  • Restricting certain food groups

Misuse of Laxatives, Diuretics, and Diet Pills

A service member may attempt to lose weight before a physical fitness assessment by using diuretics, laxatives, or weight loss pills. These over-the-counter methods are often paired with irregular eating habits and can lead to further dangerous behaviors.

Constant Food Thoughts and Negative Body Image

When a person struggles with disordered eating, they expend a significant amount of energy thinking about food. It can be all-consuming. 

  • When is my next meal? 

  • What am I going to eat? 

  • How will it make me feel? 

  • If this food makes me feel fat, I’ll have to exercise or restrict myself more. 

  • What’s the calorie count? How much have I eaten today? I shouldn’t eat that. 

  • I didn’t work out today, so I haven’t earned it.

It’s difficult to accomplish much while negatively fixating on food and body image.

Disordered Eating Behaviors in the Military

The military is a high-stress environment that values sacrifice. Sometimes, this means missing a meal to get work done or getting minimal sleep while deployed, which are risk factors for disordered eating.

In addition, the military values appearance in uniform, and physical fitness assessments can be immensely triggering for an individual. Imagine you already have body image issues and disordered eating habits, and you’re weighed and measured in front of your coworkers. What might you do in the weeks leading up to it? Despite the potential ramifications, dieting or using over-the-counter methods might be your first thought. 

Furthermore, those who experience trauma, whether combat-related or sexual assault, and depression have a higher likelihood of developing disordered eating and eating disorders. 

Why is Disordered Eating a Problem in the Military?

On an individual level, it’s stressful and anxiety-inducing to be dealing with disordered eating thoughts and behaviors constantly. It can potentially lead to a full-blown eating disorder, which has the second highest mortality rate of any mental health issue. Another adverse effect is low energy availability, which can impact mission readiness. 

Low energy availability is “a state in which the body does not have enough energy left to support all physiological functions needed to maintain optimal health.” This is notable because active-duty personnel experience situations civilians do not, such as:

  • Field exercises

  • Deployments

  • Weapon handling

  • Combat

  • Sleep deprivation

  • Prolonged load carriage 

Due to the nature of these tasks, service members expend massive amounts of calories in a day and, if not adequately fed, will experience low energy availability. The negative impact of this includes:

  • Endocrine and metabolic function (decreased testosterone or impaired menstrual function)

  • Increased risk of stress fractures or muscular skeletal injuries

  • Increased risk of illness

  • Gastrointestinal health 

  • Mood (increased tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion)

  • Physical performance (decreased strength and power; decreased aerobic performance)

  • Cognitive performance (impaired vigilance, choice and simple reaction time, pattern recognition, short-term working memory, logical reasoning, and marksmanship)

While personnel may experience short-term improvements from many of the above behaviors, a report on energy efficiency in soldiers explains: “military tasks require a unique combination of physical and cognitive effort in unpredictable and stressful environments, and the consequences of underperformance can be catastrophic.” 

Extreme dieting and caloric restrictions force the body to “pay” for these dietary cuts and put the body into survival mode, leading to muscle loss, fatigue, osteoporosis, and heart attacks. Additionally, low energy availability leads to “decreased training response, impaired judgment, decreased coordination, decreased concentration, irritability, depression, and decreased endurance performance and lower bone health,” none of which you want to experience while deployed.

We Have to Make a Change

While it’s difficult to say exactly how many service members struggle with disordered eating, as many might not realize it or they’re concerned about asking for help, it’s a severe problem that needs attention. Though these behaviors don't fall under the category of a diagnosed eating disorder, they can quickly spiral into one.

We hope leadership will note the devastating impact of low energy availability and disordered eating in the military—both to the individual and the Command—and implement the necessary changes to promote better physical and mental well-being and, therefore, stronger mission readiness.

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