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What You Need to Know: Eating Disorders in the Veteran Community

Becoming fixated on reaching a particular number on the scale, using food as a comfort to deal with stress, losing your appetite while going through a tough time — these scenarios may seem familiar to many of us at some point in our lives. But for some people, these habits can be a sign of an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are a serious medical condition and certain groups, including Veterans, may be at higher risk for disordered eating. It’s important to take an in-depth look at eating disorders, learn how to recognize the signs and explore what resources are available to help.

Risk Factors

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Many people assume that eating disorders affect mainly women or teenage girls, or that you can identify who has one by how thin they are, but these are all misconceptions. Eating disorders can affect people from all different backgrounds, including men and women, older people, and people who are overweight.

According to research by the National Library of Medicine, certain groups, including Veterans, may be at higher risk for disordered eating based on various factors, which can include:

  • Military sexual trauma or other trauma
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • The rigorous weight and physical fitness requirements of the military
  • Mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety
  • A desire for control

Eating disorders are often a sign that something deeper is going on in a person’s life. For example, an eating disorder may begin as an attempt to feel in control of something when the rest of your life seems out of control. It may become something to focus on rather than confronting a trauma or dealing with fear or anxiety about a different aspect of your life. It may be an obsession with numbers, rules and structure that stems from your time in the military.

Signs and Symptoms

An eating disorder is a serious medical condition that requires attention and treatment. Be sure to reach out and get the help you deserve.

Eating disorders aren’t always easy to spot – in yourself or others. People often go to great lengths to hide them, and the signs or symptoms don’t always fit into neat categories. However, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the National Institute of Mental Health, here are some signs to watch out for:

  • Yo-yo or excessive dieting
  • Rigid routines for eating and exercise
  • Feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating, weight and body image
  • Inability to control eating
  • Anxiety around certain foods
  • Body weight that goes up and down
  • The use of food to cope with emotions or stress
  • Preoccupation or obsession with food, dieting, counting calories and exercising
  • The avoidance of mealtimes or eating in front of others
  • Excessive exercising
  • Evidence of binge eating such as finding lots of empty food wrappers or containers
  • Evidence of purging such as trips to the bathroom after meals, sounds of vomiting and excessive use of laxatives or diuretics
  • Withdrawal from usual activities, friends or family
  • Extreme moodiness or mood swings
  • Dental problems, such as enamel erosion, cavities and tooth sensitivity

Common Eating Disorders

The National Eating Disorders Association has a detailed list of several eating disorders, including the common symptoms associated with each one. Here is a description of three of the most common eating disorders:

  • Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that is characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight and a desire to lose weight by not eating. People who suffer from anorexia may have an abnormally low body weight and a distorted perception of their weight.
  • Bulimia nervosa is characterized by frequent episodes of overeating and purging. People who suffer from bulimia may secretly binge, eating large amounts of food and then purging, getting rid of the calories with behaviors such as self-induced vomiting.
  • Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder that occurs when people regularly eat unusually large quantities of food and feel unable to stop or out of control.

 Available Resources

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An eating disorder is a serious medical condition that requires attention and treatment. Be sure to reach out and get the help you deserve.

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