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Navy veteran Chandler Rand has suffered from various eating disorders since childhood. Although she says she is healthy now, she describes her recovery as an ongoing process. She still has to struggle with negative thoughts about her body image and weight.
“It’s like walking a tightrope,” says Rand.
In 2016, Rand was a Marine. She was successfully treated for anorexia as a teenager, but after boot camp she started binging on food and became bulimic.
“I don’t think I saw this as part of my eating disorder at the time,” says Rand. “I think I just saw it as part of being a good Marine.”
For Rand, that meant meeting strict military standards for weight and body fat percentage. At the same time, she was dealing with a sexual assault that occurred while she was in college.
She says the assault affected her eating habits.
“You just want to be obsessed with something other than fear and panic or sadness and guilt,” she says. “So you’re trying to put that high moral standard on food and fitness.”
People like Rand, who develop harmful eating habits while serving, haven’t received much attention from the Department of Defense or Veterans Affairs. But a study among Iraq and Afghanistan War-era veterans by the VA in Connecticut shows they suffer from bulimia at about three times the civilian rate.
Some develop eating disorders while in the military, and others struggle with eating habits after discharge.
“I was seeing a very high rate of binge eating among veterans, but I also wanted to learn more about these other disorders,” says Robin Masheb, psychology researcher and founder of the Veterans Food and Beverage Initiative. the weight. It is one of the few programs that studies eating disorders in veterans.
She says the risk factors unique to military service go beyond strict weight requirements.
“People have talked about being in very chaotic eating situations where you either have to go a long time without eating anything or have to eat very quickly under certain conditions,” says Masheb. “These types of things also seem to be risk factors for people who have eating problems later in life.”
She also says that veterans who have been sexually assaulted are more likely to develop eating disorders.
For Rand, it was all of the above: “I think the military environment, aside from height and weight requirements, can be a perfect storm for an eating disorder.”
She says much of military life is based on numbers and rules.
“You’re scored on your physical fitness tests and your combat fitness tests, and there are point systems for driving and proficiency and range,” says Rand. “You always want to be in that perfect scoring range, and so for me it was just another score that I had to achieve.”
Masheb’s new study focuses on how VA doctors can screen veterans for eating disorders. She experiments with different ways of asking veterans questions about their relationship with food.
“Generally, men — and more generally, our veterans — are uncomfortable with this language of being out of control,” Masheb says. “Being in the military is having control.”
Masheb received a grant from the Department of Defense to test virtual therapy to help veterans with eating disorders. But she says they face other challenges, like busting myths that eating disorders only occur in young women or that overweight patients can’t have an eating disorder.
In March, the department released new guidelines that give service branches more leeway to loosen restrictions on weight and fitness standards.
Masheb and Rand agree this is a small step in the right direction. But the guidelines still leave it up to each branch to decide whether they want to continue relying on body mass index, a measurement that uses height to determine weight goals.
Rand says height and weight standards don’t make sense to her.
“If people see that you don’t have to reach that number, or be below that number, I think that hopefully won’t put as many people at higher risk,” she says. . “I think it would ease the mood.”
This story comes from WSHU in Connecticut, and was produced by North Carolina Public Radio American Home Front Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the public broadcasting company.