Women in the Army and other branches of military service are at increased risk for developing an eating disorder and suffer from eating disorders at higher rates than their civilian counterparts. This fact has been established by multiple studies conducted by both military personnel and civilian doctors.
Studies of Eating Disorders among Military Women
Two studies in particular have established high rates of eating disorders in military women. A study conducted by Dr. Tamara Lauder, M.D., and her colleagues found that 33 percent of the women studied met the criteria for being at increased risk of developing an eating disorder as established by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV.
Of those at increased risk, roughly 30 percent met the criteria for having an eating disorder. Significantly, the largest percentage of those with an eating disorder (39 percent) had an eating disorder that the authors of the study termed “situational” and described as intermittent and related to specific events, such as fitness tests and weigh-ins, during which the women felt increased pressure to conform to exacting standards of physical condition.
In a similar study entitled “A Comparative Analysis of the Prevalence and Contributing Factors of Eating Disordered Behaviors among Active Army, Navy and Air Force Service Women in the Health Care Arena,” Navy Captain Peggy McNulty reached similar conclusions. Significantly, in a parallel study on eating disorders among men in the Navy, Captain McNulty found that eating disorders also exist among male service personnel at much higher rates than in the civilian population, suggesting that eating disorders in the military are related more to peculiar aspects of the military lifestyle than to gender differences. These findings have been supported by numerous other studies on the same subject.
Probable Reasons for High Rates of Eating Disorders among Military Women
All of the authors of the various studies agree that the regimented lifestyle and exacting physical standards of the military contribute to the high rates of eating disorders among both male and female military personnel. The authors point out that not only are military personnel expected to maintain certain standards of physical fitness that include parameters of acceptable weight, but also meeting these standards is often a prerequisite for promotion and career advancement.
“Situational” disordered eating occurred most frequently around the time of fitness tests and was also often accompanied by other unhealthy behavior, such as over exercising and using diet pills, laxatives and diuretics.
Other aspects of the military lifestyle may also contribute to eating disorders. Military personnel typically have very stressful jobs that are demanding both physically and mentally. They are expected not only to maintain weight and physical fitness standards, but also to be able to perform physically at a very high level. They experience stress related to frequent moves, overseas deployment, time away from family and the very real possibility of physical injury or death from combat-related duty.
An eating disorder is a serious condition that can cause or contribute to severe and potentially fatal health consequences. However, eating disorders can be treated successfully with therapy.