Early Abuse Can Increase the Risk of ‘Food Addiction’

The risk doubled with sexual
and/or physical abuse.

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
July/August Volume 24, Number 4
©2013 Gürze Books

Severe physical or sexual abuse during childhood places women at a much higher risk of developing a food addiction in adulthood than women who do not experience such abuse, according to the results of a new study. Susan Mason, PhD, of Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, and her colleagues studied 57,321 adult participants in the Nurses’ Health Study II to see if there is a link between childhood abuse and addiction-like eating behaviors in women (Obesity. 2013; May 2. doi: 10.1002/oby.20500. [Epub ahead of print]). The Nurses’ Study includes physical and sexual child abuse histories.

Food addiction, which was defined as three or more addiction-like eating behaviors severe enough to cause significant distress or loss of function, affected 8% of the women in the Nurses study. The researchers found that women who had experienced physical or sexual abuse before the age of 18 years were twice as likely to have a food addiction in their middle adult years compared with women without a history of abuse. The likelihood of developing a food addiction increased even further for women who had experienced both severe physical and sexual abuse before age 18. With both types of abuse, the prevalence of food addiction rose to 16%.

Dr. Mason noted that her group’s findings are still exploratory and will need to be replicated before any conclusions can be drawn about a causal connection between early abuse and later food addiction. Also, the group’s next step will be to find ways to reduce the risk of addiction-like overeating among women who have undergone childhood abuse. These women might be referred to prevention programs. Another possible approach might be to screen obese women for a history of early trauma followed by addiction-like eating.

The Black Women’s Health Study

The Black Women’s Health Study evaluated self-report questionnaires given to 33,298 participants in 2005 (Pediatrics. 2012; 130:245). The authors of that study, Dr. Rene Boynton-Jarrett and colleagues at Boston University School of Medicine, reported that sexual and physical abuse early in life was associated with an increased risk of overall and central obesity in childhood. The authors concluded that early life adversity is related to adult body size and weight distribution.

According to former FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler, approximately 50% of the obese, 30% of those overweight, and 20% of individuals at what is considered a healthy weight, are actually addicted to a specific food, combinations of foods or, in some cases, volume of food in general (Kessler, 2010).  Further information about food addiction can be found at the Food Addiction Institute website: http://foodaddictioninstitute.org.

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