Understanding Eating Disorders

Our society or particular environments can place great value on our appearance. Messages from advertising or social media channels can place pressure on us to meet unrealistic ideals. This can lead people to experience difficult relationships with food, body image and the way we feel about ourselves. A difficult relationship with food can manifest in various ways. It may begin innocently enough, with concerns about body image, weight, or a desire to adopt a healthier lifestyle. However, as these concerns intensify, an individual's thoughts and behaviours around food become increasingly rigid, leading to restriction, binge eating, or purging.

Eating disorders are a serious mental health concern that can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, or occupation. It’s a misconception that eating disorders are primarily something which only impacts women.

The transition from a difficult relationship with food to an eating disorder is not always straightforward. It is often a gradual progression, marked by a deepening worry with food and body image. Individuals may become fixated on calorie counting, engage in excessive exercise, or develop rigid rules around meal times and food choices. Over time, these behaviours can erode physical and mental well-being, and the eating disorder takes hold. A range of factors impact on our likelihood of experiencing difficult relationships with food and body image, and whether that might turn into an eating disorder. It may be a combination of genetics, life experiences or our environment. In a military setting, there are some unique challenges and considerations to keep in mind when it comes to recognizing and responding to eating disorders.

First and foremost, it's important to understand that eating disorders can occur in military settings, to any gender. Those who may be experiencing an eating disorder can look healthy but actually be extremely ill.  The rigorous physical demands of military training and the pressure to meet health and fitness standards can play a role in eating disorders in the military. Additionally, the stress and trauma associated with combat and other military operations can also contribute to the development of eating disorders, with usually greater post-traumatic stress symptoms being associated with greater severity of eating disorder symptoms.

Common signs of a possible eating disorder

  1. Rapid or significant weight loss: Military training and operations can be physically demanding, but rapid or significant weight loss that is not explained by increased activity levels may be a sign of an eating disorder.
  2. Obsessive behaviour around food and exercise: Individuals with eating disorders may become obsessive about their food intake and exercise regimen. They may refuse to eat certain foods or avoid eating in front of others. They may also engage in excessive exercise or other physical activity as a way to burn calories.
  3. Changes in eating habits: Eating disorders can cause individuals to develop unusual eating habits, such as eating very small portions, skipping meals, or avoiding certain types of food. They may also binge eat or purge after eating.
  4. Social isolation: Individuals with eating disorders may avoid social situations that involve food, such as meals with colleagues or friends. They may also become withdrawn and isolated from others.
  5. Preoccupation with body image: Individuals with eating disorders may be preoccupied with their body image and constantly compare themselves to others. They may express dissatisfaction with their body size or shape, even if they are already thin or muscular.
  6. Physical symptoms: Eating disorders can cause a variety of physical symptoms, including fatigue, dizziness, fainting, irregular menstrual cycles, and gastrointestinal problems.

Common eating disorders

Common eating disorders that may be seen in a military setting include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder and body dysmorphic disorder.

What might professional help look like?

Recognizing and addressing eating disorders in a military setting requires a collaborative approach that involves both mental health professionals and military leaders.

Early detection and intervention are critical to improving outcomes for individuals with eating disorders. Additionally, it's important to create a supportive and non-judgmental environment that encourages individuals to seek help for their eating disorder symptoms.

Treatment for eating disorders in the NZDF may involve a combination of individual therapy, group therapy, and medication management, and will often take some time.

Contacting your local Defence Health Centre or GP is a good first step in receiving an initial assessment and what the right pathway will be for you.

By working together, we can improve outcomes for individuals with eating disorders and promote a culture of health and wellness within the NZDF community.