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NEWS | July 11, 2022

When food consumes you: serving with an eating disorder

By C/Maj. Elizabeth Parkes Joint Base Langley-Eustis Public Affairs

Various studies show that military service members face a higher risk of developing eating disorders than the general population. In an organization that relies on mental and physical wellness, this can potentially cause major damage to the mission.


An eating disorder is an illness that creates damaged attitudes and behaviors towards food, eating, exercise and body image. There are many types, each with an array of associated symptoms. Each person’s experience is unique and complicated from onset.


“It can literally stem from anything,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Morgan Carpenter, 633d Medical Group nutritional medicine flight commander. “Maybe something terrible is happening, or maybe nothing is happening…it can come from anywhere.”


Regardless of where they come from, eating disorders appear to affect a large percentage of the military. One study found that of the military members sampled, one-third of women and one-fifth of men reported symptoms consistent with an eating disorder diagnosis. This indicates that the military population is two to three times more likely to develop an eating disorder than the civilian population; this risk increases in specific branches and job fields.


The risk also increases during specific times of year.


“The disordered eating patterns that we see in society, I see tenfold around the PT test,” Carpenter said. “That’s when it rears its ugly head the most.”


This supports overall data that shows some service members engage in disordered eating habits three times as often during a fitness testing period.


Preexisting mental health conditions may further exacerbate this problem. A study of military veterans discovered that eating disorders were significantly more common in those with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol and/or drug use disorders.


Once a person develops an eating disorder, it becomes increasingly difficult to recover. According to Carpenter, constantly worrying about calories, mealtimes and how to hide disordered habits overwhelms the brain.


“It becomes your life, it consumes you,” Carpenter said. “It makes it very difficult to do your job if you can’t think about anything other than food and numbers.”


In a service profession, this can be detrimental to the mission.


“The mission comes first,” said Monica Richardson, 633d Medical Group health promotion coordinator, discussing what she sees as the biggest barrier to seeking help in the military. “But sometimes in an effort to accomplish that mission, we don’t think about the body or the person.”


Richardson works with service members to foster a culture of healthy living, which often revolves around nutrition. “I try to equip our airmen with as much sound information as possible,” she said. If she sees any concerning nutrition patterns in service members, she directs them to Carpenter. 


Although people are often scared of the consequences for admitting they are struggling, it is crucial to ask for help and begin the recovery process.


“I’m not interested in ruining military careers,” Carpenter said. “I’m interested in getting you help.”


Health Promotion and Nutritional Medicine both work to educate and counsel Joint Base Langley-Eustis service members. If the issue is too severe for either department, Carpenter will refer the person to outpatient treatment resources. Currently, there are 166 eating disorder facilities in the United States available to service members and their dependents with Department of Defense health coverage, nine of which are in Virginia.


Despite negative trends and data, Richardson remains hopeful. She believes the climate of health is rapidly changing, making recovery and resources more attainable.


“I think we need to remember that when it comes to healthy living, it’s never only about food or exercise”, Richardson said.” We have to take a step back as leaders to really say, ‘how can we make sure our wingmen are getting what they need?’”


For more information, contact Capt. Carpenter or Ms. Richardson via the USAF Hospital Langley main number: 757--225-7630.