Severe childhood abuse suffered by girls during childhood may be linked to a subsequent food addiction, new research suggests. Women who have experienced physical or sexual abuse during childhood are much more likely to have a food addiction as adults than who women who did not experience childhood abuse.

National surveys have indicated that more than one third of American women experience some form of physical or sexual abuse before they reached the age 18. Also, this childhood abuse has consequences not only for a women’s mental health but also for their physical health. Many studies have documented a link between childhood abuse and later obesity. The reasoning for this is possibly because stress may cause one to overeat high-sugar and high-fat “comfort” foods in an uncontrolled way.

Because of these findings, Susan Mason, PhD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston and her colleagues began to look for the link between childhood abuse and food addiction behaviors in women. These researchers studied around 57,000 adult participants in the Nurses’ Health Study II, which ascertained physical, and sexual childhood abuse histories in 2001 and current food addiction in 2009. In this study food addiction was defined as three or more addiction-like eating behaviors bad enough to cause significant distress or loss of function.

The study revealed that food addiction/eating behaviors were relatively common among women in the study, with eight percent of the women meeting the criteria for a food addiction. Women who had experienced physical or sexual childhood abuse before the age of 18 were almost twice as likely to have a food addiction in the middle of adulthood in comparison with women without a history of childhood abuse. The likelihood of a food addiction was also increased further for women who had experienced both physical and sexual childhood abuse. The prevalence of a food addiction varied from six percent in women without a history of physical or sexual childhood abuse to sixteen percent among women who did have a history of both severe physical and sexual childhood abuse. Not only that but women with a food addiction were generally heavier than women without a food addiction.

The study’s authors, including Dr. Mason acknowledged that the study’s findings are tentative and further research is required before “any conclusions can be drawn about a causal link between childhood abuse victimization and addiction-like overeating.” If the link is backed up by substantial evidence, the next step will be to find ways to reduce the risk of addiction-like overeating among women who experienced childhood abuse.

“Women with histories of trauma who show a propensity toward uncontrolled eating could potentially be referred for prevention programs, while obese women might be screened for early trauma and addiction-like eating so that any psychological impediments to weight loss could be addressed,” said Dr. Mason. “Of course, preventing childhood abuse in the first place would be the best strategy of all, but in the absence of a perfect child abuse prevention strategy, it is important that we try to head off its negative long-term health consequences,” she added.



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