Swanton, Ohio --
A life-long struggle with eating disorders, including anorexia, orthorexia and serious food preoccupation, has become a life-changing opportunity for one Airman assigned to the Ohio National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing.
“I struggled for many years with disordered eating,” said Master Sgt. Ariel McVicker, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the 180FW fitness assessment team. “I went on my first diet in sixth grade. I began limiting my intake of certain foods, but it grew into a serious food preoccupation and eventually into anorexia.”
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders are serious, but treatable mental and physical illnesses that can affect people of any age, gender, race or religion.
The NEDA estimates that nearly 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives.
What began as another way to feed her obsession with food control, McVicker enrolled at Bowling Green State University in 2015 in pursuit of a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics, ended in the a tough realization about her own health, the knowledge needed to overcome her struggles and the ability to educate and assist others.
“As a fitness professional, it was easy to mask my habits under the guise of healthy, by seeming to be dedicated and committed,” said McVicker. “But, after a couple of years in the program, I was able to see my problem for what it was and learned the damage I was inflicting upon my mental health and my body.”
“I can say confidently now, that I have recovered completely from this,” said McVicker. “I want to spend my life helping others see past their restrictive eating patterns and gain true health.”
Graduating in 2019 with her degree in Nutrition and Dietetics, McVicker is taking the next steps in her goals of helping others.
While working toward earning official certification as a Registered Dietitian, McVicker also owns a small business as a private personal fitness trainer, designing programs and working with clients in both online and in-person environments, to help each meet their personal health and fitness goals.
“I have earned my degree and I’m currently applying for internships as my next step,” McVicker said. “To become a Registered Dietitian, I need to complete 1,200 hours of unpaid internship work, pass a dietitian registration exam and gain licensure in the state of practice, along with maintaining annual continuing education requirements.”
“As a future Registered Dietitian, I will get the opportunity to educate and treat people with various diseases and medical conditions, based on their individual needs,” McVicker explained.
Now, armed with knowledge acquired through her degree program and the tough lessons learned throughout her battle, McVicker is committed not only to improving her life, but also the lives of her fellow Airmen.
Her education, coupled with her role as NCOIC of the fitness assessment team, allows McVicker direct interaction with the more than 1,000 Airmen assigned to the 180FW as they complete annual fitness testing requirements.
“As a certified Air Force Fitness Specialist, I currently get to work with our Airmen here at the 180th to help them improve their physical fitness,” said McVicker. “Now, I can also work with them, teaching them how to better plan and shop for foods, and prepare healthy meals that support their individual lifestyles.”
The U.S. Air Force has deemed physical wellness as one of the four pillars of wellness and resiliency, focused on ensuring Airmen throughout the force are ready for the warfight.
“We know that if an Airman isn’t ready, our mission will suffer,” said McVicker. “Supporting our Airmen to be best prepared, mentally, physically and on the wellbeing front is vital to their performance and outlook. A lifestyle that receives adequate nutrition, exercise, sleep and enjoyment helps to ensure our Airmen are fit to fight.”
While there are many components to ensuring Airmen readiness, the Air Force fitness assessment is a key requirements and is directly linked to an Airman’s combat readiness.
Often identified as one of the largest stressors for Airmen across the force, the assessment is conducted annually in the Air National Guard, and is comprised of three specific criteria. First, is body composition, which is evaluated by abdominal circumference measurements. Second, is muscular fitness, evaluated by the number of push-ups and sit-ups completed within a one-minute timeframe for each. Lastly, is the aerobic component, which is evaluated by a timed 1.5 mile run.
“We have Airmen who go to great lengths to get a good score on the abdominal circumference, because it counts for 20% of the test,” Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force, Kaleth Wright, said in a speech at the 2019 Air, Space and Cyber Conference in 2019.
“Our bodies are brilliant, complex, advanced machines,”McVicker said. “There is so much going on in there than just calories in and calories out. I have learned so much about nutrient and drug interactions and how our bodies function with the support or lack of certain vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.”
U.S. Air Force Dietitian, Sandra Stuart, emphasized in a 2019 article, that the building blocks that ensure Airmen are healthy and fit to fight, starts with what they put on their plate. Stuart also highlighted that including mindful eating and nutrition with exercise will help maximize overall fitness and serves as a cornerstone of Airmen being at the top of their game.
“Dietetics is not only the study of food,” McVicker explained. “I can help Airmen navigate their best course of action with it comes to supporting their health goals and fitness activities and plans.”
While on duty, in addition to administering the fitness assessments, McVicker dedicates time to educating 180FW Airmen on the importance of proper nutrition and fitness, in both one-on-one and group settings.
“Every chance I get, I try to impart some nutrition knowledge,” said McVicker. “Whether it is in the form of one-on-one nutrition counseling with Airmen, trying to dispel misinformation on what our diet culture touts as healthy, like fad diets, or helping Airmen develop a sound fitness plan. My job is to advocate for those that do not have advanced understanding of biochemical mechanism of the human body.”
Once she earns her certification and state licenses, McVicker plans to become an official military dietitian in an effort to continue serving military members and veterans.
“My goal is to serve in a clinical setting or a community-based program,” said McVicker. “Helping military members live their best life will be my greatest satisfaction.”