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Eating Disorders in the Military

Updated: May 30



- Why are active military service members and veterans at a higher risk for developing eating disorders?

- Eating disorders can be treated and prevented!

- How active military service members and veterans can seek help

- Be a part of the solution


Eating disorders are devastating mental illnesses that can affect anyone; even the strongest individuals. Those who suffer from eating disorders can have their entire lives taken over by the disorder because it becomes an obsession. The obsession with food, weight, body shape, or physique leads to excessive regulation of food intake, which often provides a sense of control, often used to cope with difficult emotions or situations. When eating disorders are left untreated, they can be fatal.

The good news is, eating disorders can be treated. Ideally, it’s best to prevent them all together! The sooner an eating disorder is treated, the more likely it is for that person to recover.

While eating disorders are often viewed as a disorder that centers around prominently white women who desire to fit the unrealistic beauty standard, this simply isn’t the case for many people who are at risk or already suffering.


Three people holding hands.


A recent study conducted from 2017 to 2021 revealed a concerning rise in eating disorders among active U.S. military service members. The study found that 2,454 service members were diagnosed with one of the following eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or other/unspecified eating disorders.

The results of this study showed that the rate of new cases per 10,000 individuals per year increased from 2.8 to 5.0 over a span of 5 years. In other words, the number of cases each year more than doubled by the end of the 5-year period. With new cases of eating disorders on the rise, more needs to be done to prevent them from developing at all.

Active military service members and veterans are just as much at risk as civilians for developing an eating disorder, and may be at an even higher risk.


A graph depicting the incidence rates of eating disorders among active component mail service members

a graph depicting annual incidence rates of eating disorders among active component female service members.


Why are active military service members and veterans at a higher risk for developing eating disorders?

There are many factors that play a role in the development of eating disorders. For active service members and veterans, these are the leading factors:

Military Culture

Military culture is the set of values, beliefs, norms, and practices that exist in the military community. Within this culture, there is a strong emphasis on physical fitness and appearance. While this may not seem like a bad thing, holding physique to a high standard can cause body image concerns over time.

“Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is often grouped by psychologists with eating disorders like bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa and binge eating. BDD is a mental health condition in which a person can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in their appearance, to the point that it causes disruption and distress in their life” (Henderson, 2022).


a waist down shot of military men and women marching.


This excessive preoccupation with body size or shape is dangerous because those suffering may go great lengths to achieve what they feel they “should” look like which puts their health, and life, at risk.

Other factors like genetics, age, and co-existing mental health disorders play a role in the development of BDD, or Muscular Dysmorphic Disorder (MDD). These factors on top of the pressures of military culture to look a certain way increases the risk of developing BDD, MDD, or a full on eating disorder.


Service members who have unfortunately experienced trauma during their time in the military have a higher risk of developing an eating disorder.


A man struggling with an eating disorder.


Some service members that experience traumatic events may develop PTSD or other mental health conditions as a result. Individuals struggling with PTSD or other psychological illnesses may turn to disordered eating behaviors as a way to cope with the distressing psychological issues caused by those illnesses.

Regardless of the type of trauma or psychological illness, it is commonly seen in those who develop eating disorders to lean on their disordered eating habits as a way to cope.

Control, Shame, and Guilt

Military service members and veterans who have experienced traumatic events during their time in the military may leave them feeling like they have lost control of their life.

In an attempt to regain a sense of control, many people turn to disordered eating behaviors to feel in control of their bodies and food intake when it feels like they don’t have control over anything else.


An overlayed photo depicting the mental challenges of overcoming eating disorders.


Following strict food rules, food rituals, or a strict and excessive exercise routine are all ways to create a false sense of control and provide a distraction from the consequences of trauma.

Another possible impact of traumatic events are intense feelings of guilt, shame, or self-blaming. Over time, individuals who feel this way can develop a negative view of themselves, potentially leading to behaviors that are done to punish themselves.

Some of these behaviors could be extreme dieting, over-exercising, or restriction, all done as a way to punish themselves for the guilt or shame they feel from their traumatic experiences.


A military person holding hands with another person.


Co-occurring Mental Health Conditions

Eating disorders often co-occur with other mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety- also known as comorbidity.

Active service members and veterans who are already struggling with mental health issues, or develop mental health issues during their time in the military, have an increased risk for developing disordered eating patterns, which can lead to an eating disorder.

Eating disorders and other mental health conditions often have similar causes, like genes, how the brain works, and how we think and feel about ourselves. This puts people who have other mental health conditions at a higher risk for developing an eating disorder.

Why are eating disorders so dangerous? Read more here.


Two military people discussing eating disorder treatment.


Read the real-life experiences of those who have suffered from eating disorders in the military:


Eating disorders can be treated and prevented!

Eating disorders are a devastating illnesses that impact almost 30 million Americans at some point in their lives, including active military service members and veterans. Prevention through education and awareness is key to slowing the rising cases of eating disorders everywhere, and especially in our military service members. Here’s how:

Increases Understanding

When people learn about eating disorders, they gain a better understanding of the signs, symptoms, risk factors, and consequences. The more people that have this understanding, the more people will be able to recognize warning signs in themselves or others to get help early on. The earlier treatment starts, the more likely recovery becomes.


Two people holding hands while discussing eating disorders.


This applies to the medical field as well. As the general public gains a better understanding of eating disorders, there will be more of a push for doctors to screen for eating disorders in anyone who may be showing signs, especially for those in the military where the signs may be missed.

Eating disorder statistics are tricky in showing the true impact they have on the population because of how many people go undiagnosed. Raising awareness can change that.

Reduces Stigma

Stigma is a negative social view or judgment that is linked with various characteristics, behaviors, or conditions. This view causes damaging stereotypes and labels that are based on the characteristics, behaviors, or conditions being judged.


Military people lined up.


Stigma is caused by misunderstanding and biases. It leads to bullying, prejudice, discrimination, and being left out, which leaves those who experience stigma feeling ashamed, isolated, and lowers their self-worth.

Unfortunately there are many misconceptions about eating disorders that lead to stigma. Here are a few eating disorder myths:

  • Eating disorders are a choice

  • Eating disorders have a “look” - people with larger bodies can’t have eating disorders

  • Eating disorders only impact women

  • Eating disorders are only about food

The reality is that eating disorders are a complex serious illness that can affect anyone regardless of body size or gender, and go much deeper than just problems with food. Believing the stigmas that indicate otherwise makes it harder for those who are suffering to get help. Raising awareness is the only way to reduce stigma.


A military person and their father discussing treatment.


Encourages Early Intervention

Eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates out of all mental health illnesses. Treating eating disorders early on increases the chance of recovery, increases the speed of recovery, significantly reduces symptoms, and lowers the chance of relapsing.

Eating disorders are different from most other mental health issues because they develop into serious physical health issues including bone disease, organ failure, growth and development issues, cancer, and even death if left untreated.

Early intervention catches eating disorders before they can cause irreversible damage. Raising awareness increases the likelihood that eating disorders will be noticed early on and literally saves lives!


A happy military family.


How active military service members and veterans can seek help

Whether you are actively serving in the military or are a proud veteran, it’s important for you to recognize that you do not need to be perfect. You are enough. While dedication and physical fitness is valued in the military community, you are not weak or any less dedicated for seeking help. Actually, seeking help is one of the strongest and most admirable things you can do.

It is crucial that you seek help if you think you are experiencing any signs or symptoms of disordered eating or an eating disorder. Ignoring or downplaying these signs can put your physical and mental health at serious risk. It not only impacts you, but also your fellow teammates, friends, and family.


White Pine Center for Healing modified logo.


Seeking treatment will help you and others who may be suffering because you will be starting a conversation and leading by example that it is okay to get help if you need it.

If you or someone you know is struggling, we are here for you. Take our health survey here to determine if you need professional help, read our blog “Do I have an eating disorder?”, and visit our contact page here to reach out to us by phone or email if you need help. If we do not serve your area, here are some resources to help you:

Find Treatment:


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Center for Discovery. (2021, February 9). Eating disorders in the military. Center For Discovery.

Murray, J. H., Mabila, S. L., & McQuistan, A. A. (2023, January 1). Trends in the incidence of eating disorders among active component service members, 2017 to 2021. Military Health System.

NEDC. (2023, May 11). Stigma and eating disorders. National Eating Disorders Collaboration.

Jones, M., & Brown, T. (2019, September 3). Why early intervention for eating disorders is essential. National Eating Disorders Association.

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