West Point Grad Battles Eating Disorder

Soldiers at higher risk to develop eating disorder, studies suggest.

ByABC News
February 8, 2012, 5:27 PM

Feb. 8, 2012— -- Jenifer Beaudean's bulimia began when she was a third-year cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

The pressure from her family, school and peers to "make the uniform look good," she said, took a toll on her self-image.

At a routine weigh-in held to ensure cadets are maintaining the standard height-weight balance, Beaudean came in at a heavier weight and had to be "taped" -- meaning a measuring tape was used to ensure her waist size matched regulations proportional to her height.

"I had a very poor body image," said Beaudean, who talked of her first time purging in her dorm. "It really culminated into this moment of desperation."

For 13 years and throughout her seven-year Army career, Beaudean, now 43, of Southbury, Conn., battled the cycle of binging and purging.

"Although I was a good and healthy weight, it felt like I couldn't be thin enough," said Beaudean, who has documented her disorder in her memoir, "Whatever the Cost." "Every success was diminished by a number on the scale."

As many as 10 million women and 1 million men in the U.S. battle anorexia or bulimia, and at least 15 million more struggle with binge eating disorder, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. Millions more practice disordered eating because of an obsession with dieting.

Mounting evidence suggests that eating disorders are higher among service members than among civilians.

While there's not enough substantial data collected to quantify the prevalence of eating disorders among service members, previous research suggests female service members are 4 percent more likely to develop an eating disorder than females not in the service.

A study published 2009 in Military Medicine found no difference in the prevalence of eating disorders between West Point cadets and students at civilian colleges.

A review published in 2008 looking at nearly a decade of medical data from service members diagnosed with an eating disorder, suggested that the diagnosis of eating disorders among service members doubled from 1998 to 2006, although the number remained relatively small. A majority of those diagnosed were Marines.

Experts said a combination of environmental and traditional factors place soldiers, especially women, at higher risk for developing an eating disorder than any other group of people.

Women who report feeling deployment stress may be at higher risk for developing eating problems and weight loss, according to a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

An estimated 14 percent of active duty military personnel are women, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

According to Dr. Kim Dennis, medical director of Timberline Knolls, a residential eating disorder treatment center in Lemont, Ill., eating disorders among women in the military are underreported and often difficult to detect.

"I think that goes hand in hand with denial and minimization of eating disorders," said Dennis, whose facility sees a substantial amount of women in the military. "They're more recognized as having a substance disorder."

Eating disorders can range in forms including excessive physical activity, extreme dieting, anorexia, binging and bulimia.

At the height of her illness, Beaudean purged up to five times a day.