Marine Corps body composition standards may be leading to eating disorders

The Marine Corps’ Body Composition and Military Appearance Program may be leading to a force that is fit but unhealthy, a Rand study has found ― leaving Marines with behaviors typically associated with eating disorders.

The body composition program does not allow for Marines to grow and maintain the increased muscle mass required to meet the standards of their jobs or the increasingly demanding physical fitness assessments, according to the study’s findings, published March 25. And an emphasis on physical appearance as a leadership trait may be a top factor in higher rates of eating disorders.

“Marines are diagnosed with eating disorders at higher rates than other service members, and women Marines in particular are diagnosed more than others,” the report showed, with Marines diagnosed “at nearly twice the rate of other services.”

Female Marines have the highest rate of eating disorder diagnoses across all of the branches.

Unhealthy eating behaviors

The study, initiated by Rand and not the Marine Corps, conducted a thorough literature review of existing research surrounding body composition policies and effects on service members’ physical and mental health, as well as research concerning how these policies affect retention rates.

Lead researchers Joslyn Fleming and Jeannette Gaudry Haynie ― both Marine veterans themselves ― noted that the Corps’ heavy emphasis on physical appearance as a leadership trait may be a leading factor as to why there has been an increase in the number of Marines adopting unhealthy eating behaviors , even if a large number go undiagnosed because of stigma attached to them.

When “coupled with a culture of strict adherence to fitness standards,” Fleming wrote in an article published alongside the study, that heavy emphasis may “potentially drive Marines—particularly women and persons of color—to adopt unhealthy behaviors to meet those standards.”

That particular assertion stems from the fact that the branches use standards heavily based on body mass index tables that were developed in the 1900s following research almost entirely conducted on white, European males, leaving women and people of color out of consideration.

BMI standards also do not account for the fact that people are coming to age taller and stronger than ever recorded before, meaning that standards created for generations two or three times removed need to be reassessed regardless of gender or race.

While the Corps’ body composition program was designed with the intention of supporting the growth and maintenance of a fit and healthy Marine, Rand says its implementation may have resulted in the exact opposite.

The study suggested removing verbiage that ties leadership capabilities directly to the weight and appearance of Marines.

“The Marine Corps, of all the branches, puts the heaviest emphasis on height and weight and what they consider an idealized body composition standard,” Fleming told Marine Corps Times. “When you look at the verbiage of the Marine Corps’ policy, it very much emphasizes this and directly ties your appearance to how good you can be as a leader of Marines.”

This is a notion “very tightly woven within Marine Corps culture,” she said.

Also recommended was that the Marine Corps immediately pause all of its height, weight and body-composition measurements until further study is conducted and new recommendations are implemented, similar to steps the Air Force recently has taken as it redesigns its policies.

The Corps’ needs to take a “comprehensive, systematic approach to fully understand and address the deficiencies in the BCMAP, develop a more health-focused policy, and mitigate any impacts from the existing BCMAP through research and analysis,” Rand said.

To do that, the Corps not only needs to study Marines who fail standards, but those who are near its limits and those not previously considered in making the standards.

This one suggestion may be a step the Corps already is taking, as the branch is conducting its own study through its Human Performance Branch ― led by the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. Findings have yet to be released as the study is wrapping up its final stages.

The Marine Corps’ study compares whole body scans, body fat percentage and body shape to physical fitness test and combat fitness test scores to come to a more scientific body composition standard, something that is now possible following the Defense Department’s recent update to its body composition and physical fitness instruction.

It also sought to pull Marines in from a diverse array of demographics, including those from different occupational specialties, the enlisted and officer corps, all genders and ages, and even those who are postpartum.

“Taking care of Marines is always a leadership priority,” Maj. Lindsey Slyman, the programs and assessment section head for the Marine Corps’ policy and standards division, said in a statement regarding the Marine Corps’ study. “Taking care of Marines means not only vigorously enforcing our high standards, but constantly evolving those standards for a more healthy, fit, and ready force.”

But while the Marine Corps is doing good by Marines in conducting its latest study, a more holistic approach still needs to be taken, Fleming said.

“Our primary recommendation is that this requires further study,” she said. “As we show in our research paper, there is not really a good body weight method that is out there that would be particularly useful for the Marine Corps, due to time or resources or costs or ability to have access to better measurement systems.”

“I also think it’s still overlooking the overall problem that we have here, which is the health of the force and what needs to be done to prohibit further harm to Marines.”

Rand researchers suggest that the Corps consider whether height, weight and body-composition measurements are even necessary and if they truly represent the overall fitness and health of Marines.

And, if the branch does decide that its own body composition standards are still paramount to force readiness, it should “develop and implement a body-composition program that directly grapples with the contradictory nature of the existing program” and create a new program that is reflective of and supports the diversity of the force.

The Marine Corps also needs to address the matter of eating disorders, the study suggested, whether that is by conducting more studies on policies and subsequent effects on eating behaviors or through further educating Marines on nutrition and mental and physical well-being.

Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran, Penn State alumna and Master’s candidate at New York University for Business and Economic Reporting.

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