[VA] – A young Veteran has recently returned from a grueling deployment in Afghanistan. But his battles are far from over. When his wife and kids go to sleep at night, he starts downing chips, cookies, beer and pretty much anything else he can find in the refrigerator. It’s well after midnight before he finally hits the sack.
The next morning he feels guilty and depressed. He tells himself it won’t happen again. And to compensate for all the junk he consumed last night, he decides to skip breakfast. Then he skips lunch.
But as evening rolls around, he begins feeling irritable again. Unpleasant, invasive memories from his time in Afghanistan make it hard to sleep. So he’s out of bed, heading for the refrigerator once again.
And so it goes.
A Typical Scenario
“The Veteran in this story is actually not a real person, but a composite of many patients I’ve worked with who have an eating disorder,” said Dr. Robin Masheb, a research scientist with the Connecticut VA Healthcare System and the Yale School of Medicine. “It’s a fairly typical scenario.”
Masheb is currently conducting several studies on Veterans and binge eating.
“Binge eating disorder is officially recognized as the most prevalent eating disorder in the United States,” she said. “It may disproportionately affect our military servicemen and women, exacting a heavy toll on their physical and mental health, and placing a financial burden on our health care system.
“Effective treatments for this disorder already exist,” she added, “but we need to find ways to bring these treatments to Veterans who are suffering with this problem.”
A National Pastime
Masheb said indulging in food is a staple of American culture, which can sometimes make it difficult for you to realize you might have an eating disorder.
“What is not difficult to grasp, however, is that binge eating leads to being overweight,” the researcher said. “We know being overweight significantly increases the likelihood of a range of health issues, from heart disease to cancer. And those who binge eat are even more at risk for these diseases.”
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“According to one study,” Masheb said, “overweight Veterans who binge eat have an approximately 60 percent greater chance of having type 2 diabetes than overweight Veterans who don’t binge eat.”
She said the same study found that Veterans who were overweight and reported binge eating were also more likely to have coronary artery disease, hypertension and high cholesterol.
“They were also more likely to have substance abuse problems,” she said, “and to suffer from mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia…
“Binge eating,” she added, “also makes it more likely that weight loss attempts will be less successful.”
The researcher said a recent study of over 45,000 Veterans seeking weight loss treatment through the Veterans Health Administration found that over 78 percent of them reported binge eating behavior.
“Because so little research has been done on eating behavior in Veterans, it’s difficult to know why this particular population suffers from such high rates of binge eating,” she said. “It’s also unclear why male Veterans are more likely to binge eat than female Veterans. In the civilian population, it’s the other way around. There’s a lot we need to find out about this.”
Masheb said there’s a range of behavioral, medical and self-help interventions that have proven effective for reducing or eliminating binge eating. (For example, the VA’s weight management program known as ‘MOVE!’ may be one avenue for getting the help you need.)
“We have clinicians, therapists and other professionals here at the VA who can help,” Masheb pointed out, “but Veterans who binge eat are a special subgroup. First we have to identify who they are. Then we have to identify the best way to treat them.
“Given how promising the potential treatments are,” she said, “it is well worth investing in this area of research to improve the health of our Veterans.”
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
To learn more about the MOVE! Weight Management Program for Veterans, visit VA’s National Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at www.move.va.gov.
– Tom Cramer, VA Staff Writer