The United States has one of the best militaries in the world, with just over 1.34 million active-duty troops in 2015. They are prepared to meet any threat or challenge facing the country. However, many Americans are unaware of the personal and mental health challenges facing members of the nation’s armed forces. One of these challenges is the prevention and treatment of eating disorders among the ranks of U.S. military service personnel. Recent studies by the U.S. military indicate that eating disorder diagnoses for members of the armed forces have increased by 26 percent over a period of five years. The same study hints that the actual incidence of these illnesses is likely even greater.
According to research, it is estimated that roughly 30 million Americans will experience some type of eating disorder. Similar studies have shown that there are elevated rates of this disease among the nation’s active duty military members. In particular, the disease appears at higher proportions for women who are enlisted for active duty in the military. This data is not a new phenomenon. Back in 1999, researchers at the Mayo Clinic studied the eating behaviors of 423 women on active duty at Madigan Army Medical Center in Fort Lewis, Washington. This study reported that 8 percent of the women were diagnosed with an eating disorder. For comparison, the incidence of this disease for non-military women is estimated at only 1 to 3 percent of the total population. Active duty service members, including West Point graduates, reported that they feeling pressure from family, school and peers to “make the uniform look good.” This pressure can create a cycle of binging and purging with soldiers feeling like they can never be thin or in shape enough. The same disease also occurs among male active duty service members.
In all of the armed forces, more women than men are diagnosed with diseases like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. More than two-thirds of cases involved female troops and the overall incidence rate among women, at 11.9 cases per 10,000, was more than 11 times that of males. Interestingly, the overall incidence rate of eating disorders among female Marine Corps members was nearly twice the amount when compared to women Army members. For male active duty service members, the rates were highest in the Army and Marines. Potential reasons for the increased risk for developing an eating disorder while in the military is likely due to exposure to trauma, as well as the need to routinely meet physical fitness and body weight requirements. These factors likely elevate the risk of eating disorders developing among both women and men. Children of military families also reported similar conditions at a significantly higher rate than the civilian population.
Research published in the U.S. Military’s Defense Health Agency’s Medical Surveillance Monthly Report found that incidence rates had risen steadily from 2013 to 2016 before decreasing slightly in 2017. Diagnoses for eating disorders increased from 2.3 per 10,000 to 3 per 10,000 in 2016, before dropping to 2.9 per 10,000 in 2017. “Results of the current study suggest that service members likely experience eating disorders at rates that are comparable to rates in the general population, and that rates of these disorders are potentially rising among service members,” the report states. “These findings underscore the need for appropriate prevention and treatment efforts in this population.”
The need for prevention and treatment of military members and their families suffering eating disorders has not been unnoticed. The U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) Peer Reviewed Medical Research Program (PRMRP) has allocated funding for eating disorders research, intervention and treatment programs. Congress first made the topic of eating disorders eligible for funding in 2017. In 2018 Congress is expected to allocate $5 million towards the prevention and treatment of eating disorders. However, federal funding for research on eating disorders is limited, with only $0.93 per person affected by eating disorders compared to other diseases such as autism receiving $44 per person affected.
To complicate matters, there is still a stigma surrounding the reporting of diseases such as eating disorders. Members of the Armed Forces are less likely to seek treatment, making prevention programs and access to treatment an imperative need across all branches. The occurrence of these diseases may, in fact, be much greater among active duty military members.
For additional questions about this topic, contact the staff at River Centre Clinic. Their programs provide a full range of treatment options for women and men with a primary diagnosis of an eating disorder. For immediate and confidential feedback, take River Centre Clinic’s EAT-26 (Eating Attitudes Test) assessment.
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Active-Duty Military Personnel, Eating Disorders