Eating Disorders in the Military and How Veterans Can Recover

Veteran Soldier Eating Disorder

Eating disorders in the military may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about challenges facing veterans, but the reality is both startling and concerning. According to recent studies, between 10-28% of veterans are grappling with some form of eating disorder, a rate that is significantly higher compared to the general population.

It is estimated that around 20% of women veterans exhibit probable symptoms of an eating disorder, compared 9% of male veterans.

Additionally, individuals with eating disorders in the military are likely to experience elevated shame and guilt, which can become driving psychological forces in substance abuse.

In the structured world of service, the rigorous physical standards, emphasis on control and discipline, and strong focus on masculinity. This can inadvertently foster an environment where eating disorders in the military develop. Military personnel often face unique stresses, including traumatic experiences and the disruption of normal eating patterns, which can contribute to these disorders.

The isolation felt during service and the challenges faced when transitioning to civilian life further exacerbate the risk. As a result, many veterans find themselves grappling with complex issues related to food, body image, and mental health.

In this post, we’ll cover the ways military life can contribute to eating disorders and subsequent substance abuse and what these disorders are. We’ll also cover how our veterans and heroes can recover from eating disorders in the military.

If you or a loved one are a veteran who suffers from PTSD, mental illness, and/or an eating disorder, call Heroes’ Mile at 407-593-7105 today to find out more about our inpatient treatment options. If you would prefer we call you, take our Depression Test, and we’ll follow up if you qualify.

Eating Disorders in the Military

A veteran man with an eating disorder staring unhappily at a salad

It is not often known that eating disorders affect men, and affect veterans more than civilians.

In the military, the rigorous demands of service and the unique challenges of life in uniform can leave a lasting imprint on veterans’ health and well-being.

Among these impacts are eating disorders in the military, which manifest in various forms, each with its own set of challenges. From Anorexia Nervosa to Orthorexia, these disorders not only stem from the military environment but also evolve in unique ways as veterans transition to civilian life.

Understanding these disorders, their symptoms, treatments, and particularly their interaction with veteran experiences is crucial for providing effective support and care.

Here, we delve into each disorder, shedding light on how they develop and are treated, with a special focus on their prevalence and manifestation in the veteran community.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa Definition

Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight and a severe restriction of food intake, leading to significantly low body weight. It’s often accompanied by a distorted body image.

Anorexia Nervosa Symptoms

Symptoms include extreme weight loss, thin appearance, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness or fainting, blue discoloration of the fingers, hair that thins, breaks or falls out, and absence of menstruation among females.

Anorexia Nervosa Treatment

Treatment typically involves a combination of psychological therapy, nutritional education, and medical monitoring. Family-based therapy is often effective, along with individual counseling.

Anorexia Nervosa in Veterans

In the military, the focus on physical fitness and weight standards can sow the seeds for anorexia, with veterans continuing these restrictive behaviors post-service. The transition to civilian life can exacerbate these tendencies, as veterans may use food control as a means to manage the loss of military structure and identity.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa Definition

Bulimia Nervosa involves a cycle of binge eating large quantities of food in a short period, followed by purging through vomiting, fasting, or excessive exercise.

Bulimia Nervosa Symptoms

Symptoms include frequent episodes of eating abnormally large amounts of food followed by a feeling of a loss of control, fear of gaining weight, self-induced vomiting, and excessive exercise.

Bulimia Nervosa Treatment

Treatment often includes psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), nutritional education, and medication like antidepressants.

Bulimia Nervosa in Veterans

The stress and trauma associated with military service can trigger bulimic behaviors as a coping mechanism. For veterans, these behaviors might serve as a way to handle emotional upheaval and the challenges of adapting to civilian life.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge Eating Disorder Definition

Binge Eating Disorder is marked by regular episodes of binge eating without the subsequent purging seen in bulimia.

Binge Eating Disorder Symptoms

Symptoms include eating large amounts of food rapidly, to the point of discomfort; eating when not hungry and to the point of feeling uncomfortably full; and feeling distressed, ashamed, or guilty about eating.

Binge Eating Disorder Treatment

Treatment can involve psychotherapy, such as CBT, interpersonal psychotherapy, and sometimes medications like antidepressants or anti-seizure drugs.

Binge Eating Disorder in Veterans

Veterans may develop binge eating disorder as a response to stress, anxiety, or depression. The loss of structured eating patterns in the military and difficulties in adjusting to civilian life can contribute to the development of this disorder.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Body Dysmorphic Disorder Definition

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is an intense preoccupation with one or more perceived flaws in physical appearance, which are not observable or appear slight to others.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder Symptoms

According to the DSM-5, Body Dysmorphic Disorder is characterized by preoccupation with one or more perceived defects or flaws in physical appearance that are either not observable or really appears slight to other people.

Symptoms include preoccupation with physical appearance, strong belief that you have a defect in your appearance that makes you ugly, and frequent examination of yourself in the mirror.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder Treatment

Treatment typically involves CBT and medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Body Dysmorphic Disorder in Veterans

The military’s emphasis on physical fitness and appearance can exacerbate BDD. After leaving the service, veterans may continue to obsess over perceived physical flaws as a way of coping with the loss of the military’s structured environment.

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED)

OSFED Definition

OSFED encompasses eating disorders that do not meet the full criteria for anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder but are equally serious.

OSFED Symptoms

Symptoms vary widely but often include behaviors characteristic of other eating disorders, such as food restriction, binge eating, or purging, without meeting the full diagnostic criteria for those disorders.

OSFED Treatment

Treatment depends on the specific symptoms and might include psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and medication.

OSFED in Veterans

Veterans might develop OSFED due to the unique stressors of military life and the transition back to civilian living. These disorders can manifest in various ways, often as a response to the loss of structure and identity post-service.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

ARFID Definition

ARFID is characterized by a failure to meet appropriate nutritional and/or energy needs, leading to weight loss, nutritional deficiency, dependence on supplemental feeding, or marked interference with psychosocial functioning.

ARFID Symptoms

Symptoms include a lack of interest in eating or food, avoidance based on the sensory characteristics of food, and concern about aversive consequences of eating.

ARFID Treatment

Treatment often involves a multidisciplinary approach including nutritional therapy, psychotherapy, and family therapy, focusing on gradually increasing the variety of foods in the diet.

ARFID in Veterans

ARFID in veterans can develop from traumatic experiences related to food or eating during service, such as restrictive eating in challenging environments or negative experiences with certain types of food.


Obesity Definition

Obesity is a complex condition involving an excessive amount of body fat. It’s not always classified as an eating disorder, but it can be related to unhealthy eating patterns.

Obesity Symptoms

Symptoms include a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, shortness of breath, increased sweating, snoring, inability to cope with sudden physical activity, and fatigue.

Obesity Treatment

Treatment includes lifestyle and behavioral changes, dietary modifications, physical activity, medication, and sometimes surgery.

Obesity in Veterans

Veterans may face obesity due to lifestyle changes after leaving the structured environment of the military, combined with factors like stress, mental health disorders, and physical injuries that limit activity.


Orthorexia Definition

Orthorexia is characterized by an obsessive focus on healthy eating, where individuals develop an extreme fixation on the quality and purity of their food.

Orthorexia Symptoms

Symptoms include compulsively checking ingredient lists and nutritional labels, cutting out an increasing number of food groups, and spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events.

Orthorexia Treatment

Treatment can involve psychotherapy to address the underlying anxiety and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, as well as nutritional counseling to ensure a balanced diet.

Orthorexia in Veterans

For veterans, orthorexia may emerge as a means of maintaining control and a connection to the disciplined lifestyle of the military. The transition to civilian life can intensify these tendencies as they seek to retain some aspect of their military regimen.

Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

How Common is Fentanyl Abuse for Veterans?

The relationship between eating disorders and substance abuse is complex and deeply intertwined, especially in the context of veterans. Both disorders can be ways of coping with emotional pain, stress, or trauma, and unfortunately, one can often exacerbate the other.

Overlap and Interaction

Eating disorders and substance abuse share common risk factors, including anxiety, depression, and a need for control or escape from reality. Substance abuse may begin as a method to manage the distress or body image issues associated with an eating disorder.

Conversely, the disordered eating patterns and psychological distress of an eating disorder can lead to substance abuse as a form of self-medication. This cycle creates a dangerous feedback loop, where each disorder fuels the severity of the other.


Substance abuse can worsen the physical and psychological consequences of eating disorders in the military. For instance, substances like alcohol or drugs can disrupt healthy eating habits and further distort body image perceptions.

Moreover, the physiological effects of substance abuse can compound the nutritional deficiencies and health complications caused by eating disorders.

Context for Veterans

For veterans, the likelihood of encountering this overlap can be higher due to the unique stresses of their military experiences and the challenges of transitioning to civilian life.

The military environment often fosters a culture of self-reliance and stoicism, which might lead veterans to self-medicate with substances rather than seek help for mental health issues, including eating disorders in the military.

The transition to civilian life can also be a trigger, as veterans grapple with identity loss, loneliness, or unresolved trauma, potentially leading to the development or exacerbation of both substance abuse and eating disorders.

Comprehensive Treatment Approach

Recognizing the intertwined nature of these disorders is essential in treating veterans. A comprehensive treatment approach that addresses both eating disorders in the military and substance abuse concurrently is vital.

This approach can include a combination of psychotherapy, medical treatment, nutritional counseling, and support groups. Tailoring these treatments to the specific needs and experiences of veterans, acknowledging their unique service-related challenges, and providing a supportive community are key factors in facilitating recovery and fostering long-term well-being.

Heroes’ Mile’s Approach to Treating Eating Disorders in the Military


At Heroes’ Mile, we understand that eating disorders in the military are not just a challenge to physical health, but serious mental illnesses that can have life-threatening consequences. Recognizing the urgency of treatment, our center in DeLand, Florida, offers specialized care for veterans battling disorders like Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder. What sets us apart is our veteran-exclusive focus, ensuring that our approach is finely tuned to the unique experiences and needs of military personnel.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

At the heart of our treatment program is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This evidence-based approach helps veterans understand and change the thought patterns that contribute to their disordered eating. By addressing the interplay of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, CBT guides veterans towards healthier lifestyles and coping strategies.

Group Therapy

Our group therapy sessions are a cornerstone of treatment, where veterans can share experiences and learn from each other. These sessions are crucial for identifying and altering maladaptive thought patterns, helping veterans replace self-destructive habits with constructive ones.

Nutritional Therapy

Understanding the importance of nutrition, we offer nutritional therapy sessions. These are designed to help veterans find balanced ways to nourish their bodies, focusing on health and well-being rather than restrictions.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Alongside our focus on eating disorders in the military, we address underlying anxiety disorders, including PTSD. ACT helps in managing these symptoms, easing the treatment of eating disorders concurrently.

Exercise Programming

Our program includes stress-relieving exercise routines, ensuring that physical activity is part of recovery without becoming a compulsive or harmful behavior.

Comprehensive Care and Services

Our facility provides full-time medical and nursing care, along with aftercare planning and transitional living options. A nutritional assessment and personalized food plans are integral to our approach.

Diverse Therapies

We offer an array of therapies, including individual and family counseling, intensive relapse prevention, trauma-informed therapy, spiritual healing, and awareness. These diverse modalities ensure a holistic treatment experience.

Supportive Groups and Activities

Our treatment extends beyond traditional therapy. We incorporate peer recovery support, recreational therapy, and equine therapy, promoting healing in various dimensions.

At Heroes’ Mile, we pride ourselves on an organized, honest, and compassionate approach to treating eating disorders in the military.

Our goal is not just to manage symptoms but to enable veterans to return to healthier weights and improved quality of life. By understanding the military mindset and the specific challenges veterans face, our program stands out as a beacon of hope and healing.

Next Steps

Our exploration of the complex world of eating disorders in the military, particularly in the context of veteran life, underscores the need for specialized care and understanding. We’ve delved into the various forms these disorders can take, how they intertwine with substance abuse, and the unique ways they manifest in veterans. Most importantly, we’ve highlighted the comprehensive and empathetic approach Heroes’ Mile takes in treating these disorders, emphasizing a veteran-exclusive focus.

If you or a loved one are a veteran struggling with an eating disorder, PTSD, or any mental health challenges, remember that help is available, and recovery is possible. Heroes’ Mile is committed to providing the support and care that veterans need to reclaim their health and well-being. Our team, all of whom are veterans themselves, understands the unique challenges you face and is ready to help you on your journey to recovery.

Take Action Today: Don’t wait to seek help. Call Heroes’ Mile at 407-593-7105 to learn more about our inpatient treatment options tailored specifically for veterans. Our lines are always open for you or your loved ones to start the conversation towards recovery.

Eating Disorder Test: If you’re unsure where to start or would prefer we reach out to you, consider taking our online Eating Disorder Test. This simple step can be the start of your journey towards healing. We’ll follow up if you qualify, ensuring you get the support and care you need.

Reaching out for help is a sign of strength. At Heroes’ Mile, we’re ready to stand with you, offering the guidance, support, and care that can make all the difference. You’ve served your country; now let us serve you on your path to recovery.

The post Eating Disorders in the Military and How Veterans Can Recover appeared first on Heroes’ Mile Veterans Recovery Center.
Original Author: Digital Team

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