National Eating Disorders Association

The Truth about Eating Disorders in the Military

Brendan Egan, Communications Intern

When Dr. Theresa Larson was in the Marines, she began to suffer from an eating disorder. For fear of losing her job, she looked towards outside help that told her what she already knew; she could not open up about her disease. She continued to stay in the military, but when she realized she needed to get help, and opened up, she received backlash rather than help. Larson was questioned about her disease, and was unable to obtain help that understood her disease. She was discharged and was sent to doctors, but none of them specialized in eating disorders. Thanks to NEDA, Larson says that she was able to find a treatment facility, but it unfortunately took over 2 months for the military to allow her to go there for help. 

Who would’ve thought that there was a high prevalence of eating disorders in our nation’s military? We look at our military as heroes, protecting our country, but when it comes down to it, who is protecting them? A survey of 3,000 women in the military found that over 60% of respondents had an eating disorder, and in the Marine Corps alone, 97.5% met the criteria for an eating disorder. Even though there is such a high prevalence, the help received by members of the military is subpar; most don’t even reach out for help due to fear of the stigma associated with eating disorders, or even worse, the loss of their job.

The connection between eating disorders and the military is similar to that found with elite athletes. Intense physical demands, combined with a heightened focus on athletic ability, performance and size, can all contribute to the development of an eating disorder in a susceptible person. Eating disorders can also be triggered by life-altering events and post-traumatic stress disorder, both of which are common in the military. 

Now Larson is advocating for the acknowledgment of eating disorders in the military, sharing her story, and fighting for the help that her fellow service members deserve. They risk their lives to protect us, but we are not protecting them. We must change this now.

To learn more about this subject, please check out this webinar featuring Larson and Dr. Kim Dennis: Eating Disorders among Members of the Military.