Every February, the eating disorder community gathers to celebrate National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. This year’s theme is “See the Change, Be the Change.” Anyone, no matter their age, shape, or gender, can suffer from an eating disorder, and it’s the community’s goal to help society address that. One specific community goal is to draw attention to the fact that military families often suffer from eating disorders at a higher rate than the civilian population.
One study of 46,219 Service members (72.6% male) evaluated disordered eating behaviors and weight changes over 2.7 years. When evaluating the onset of new disordered eating behaviors, about 415 women (3.3%) and 886 men (2.6%) reported an onset of disordered eating during that span. To analyze how these disordered eating behaviors affected weight changes, the researchers calculated the percentage of weight that subjects gained or lost over the course of the study. Researchers placed participants in one of five categories, depending on their percentage:
- Extreme weight loss (weight loss of 10% or more);
- Moderate weight loss (weight loss between 3-10%);
- Stable weight (remained with 3% gain or loss);
- Moderate weight gain (weight gain between 3-10%); or
- Extreme weight gain (a gain of 10% or more).
Although 33.2% of women and 47.4% of men’s weight remained stable, 21.3% of women and 11% of men experienced either extreme weight loss or weight gain as a result of their disordered eating patterns. The authors did not further classify whether these Service members met the criteria for an eating disorder, but they did highlight how disordered eating behaviors are precursors to a diagnosable eating disorder.
Children in military families are also at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. In an additional study of 340 pairs of adolescent females and a military-affiliated parent (i.e., an active duty, deployed, or retired military family member), 21% of adolescents and 26% of parents met the criteria for an eating disorder. The study’s findings reflect the substantial overlap among children and military-affiliated parents who both have an eating disorder. The overlap was smaller in a civilian sample.
One stressor comes from the constant changes required by military culture. Because active-duty Service members move roughly every four years, military children are required to change schools and make new friend groups. Sudden changes, such as a parent’s deployment or a permanent change of station, are also common. Children who lack control over their external surroundings may resort to either restricting food intake or overeating to cope with their emotions.
With that being said, there are treatment options and resources for military families who may suffer from an eating disorder, like the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). Through NEDA, families can quickly be connected with a trained professional who can provide support through an online chat, phone call, or text. While not a diagnostic service, NEDA is a great way to learn about treatment options within the United States. And NEDA does offer guidance on specific questions to ask treatment providers, the different levels of care, and expectations for treatment. Additionally, TRICARE offers treatment at most inpatient and outpatient levels of care.
Although recovering from an eating disorder is challenging, having the support of others makes a difference. Just knowing that someone supports you on your journey to recovery can increase the likelihood that you’ll seek and remain in treatment. And it’s always important to point out the prevalence of eating disorders within military families. If we want to see the change and be the change, we need to discuss the military community’s unique risk factors and make sure we’re offering the best treatment possible.