In this series’s first two articles, we explored the unique aspects of military members’ experiences related to anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa development and treatment. This final installment will focus on Binge Eating Disorder (BED).
The previous articles explored the challenging emphasis on power, control, and perfection in the military subculture as well as how the physical fitness requirements can contribute to restricting, bingeing, and purging behaviors.
To fully explore this, we must also consider how the emotional traumas of active military duty may precipitate ineffective disordered coping skills, a common one being binge eating episodes.
Prevalence of BED in the Military
Binge eating involves “consumption of an unusually large amount of food and feeling a sense of loss of control while eating” and is fairly common among military members .
In fact, studies have shown the prevalence of binge eating among female active-duty members to be approximately 19% across three studies as opposed to 12 to 16% in civilian females . Binge eating behaviors also appear to be elevated when comparing military male samples with civilian male samples .
Unique Military Experiences with BED
Military members struggling with BED can be triggered by the same aspects as anorexia and bulimia nervosa.
One particular aspect that BED shares with anorexia nervosa involves beliefs, behaviors, and experiences of control. Individuals struggling with anorexia nervosa are often struggling to gain some sense of control over chaos. For those with BED, binge-eating episodes are characterized by feeling a lack of control, which one may then try to make up for with future restrictive, compensatory, or bingeing behaviors.
Military members can also be triggered to binge based on the pressure and challenges of the military’s physical fitness requirements, as it “is recognized that factors that increase emphasis on weight and shape elevate the risk of eating disorders among both women and men .”
For binge eating behaviors specifically, individuals may restrict their food intake prior to their physical fitness exam, starving their bodies and minds and eventually resulting in binge episodes.
Military members may also experience unique trauma and intense work settings that may trigger them to use food and nourishment as a coping mechanism.
Finally, binge eating disorder often results in feelings of shame and guilt after a binge, which may be further compounded in military members due to the relationship that weight and physical fitness has with their livelihood.
Seeking & Receiving Treatment
Like all other eating disorders, binge eating disorder can reach a level of severity requiring inpatient treatment.
For military members, there are many barriers to receiving this due to their insurance and medical information being so closely related to their job as well as the difficulty in taking time off.
Military members are trained to engage in specific positions. When they are assigned to a certain base, they are one of few, or possibly the only person, that is trained to perform that job. As such, taking time off is difficult because no one can complete the job they are intended to do.
As a result, service members may feel pressure to not seek or engage in treatment for fear they will be “letting down” their unit.
Further, they may be receiving messages from leadership that deters them from seeking support or causes them to fear the consequences that doing so may have on their employment and livelihood.
Binge eating disorder is particularly under-reported because individuals may not see their behaviors as disordered, especially if many around them engage in similar behaviors.
Binge eating may seem less harmful than anorexia nervosa, however, treatment for it can take just as long, if not longer. Treatment should address the unique shame and guilt that military members experience related to their physical fitness requirements and binge-eating behaviors.
For those military members struggling with binge eating behaviors, treatment can be particularly complicated. Recovery may change their weight or physical fitness, and this new lifestyle may not fit into their military requirements.
Binge Eating Disorder treatment for all military members should involve examination of these opposing values and training on how individuals can advocate for their mental and emotional health when faced with a subculture or leadership that may not understand.
For binge eating disorder, family members and support systems of military members should also be informed of the warning signs of the disorder, as they are often done in secrecy.
Military members bravely sign-up to sacrifice so much of themselves for others, but they do not need to sacrifice their physical or mental health. They deserve to have healthy relationships with themselves, their minds, and their bodies and receive adequate and effective treatment if they need it.
Resources Bodell, L.,et al. (2015). Consequences of making weight: a review of eating disorder symptoms and diagnoses in the United States military. Clinical Psychology, 21:4.  Williams, V.F., Stahlman, S. Taubman, S.B. (2018). Diagnoses of eating disorders, active component service members, U.S. armed forces, 2013-2017. Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, 25:6.
About the Author:
Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.
As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published September 21, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on September 21, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC