Women who suffered severe physical or sexual abuse as children are much more
likely than others to develop a food addiction, researchers say.
Because women with food addiction are more likely to be overweight, the study
authors suggested their findings could shed light on potential causes of food
addiction and obesity, and lead to improved treatment strategies.
More than one-third of American women experienced some form of physical or
sexual abuse as children or teens, according to the study. Some studies have
suggested that the resulting stress drives these females to eat sugary,
high-calorie "comfort" foods.
"Women with histories of trauma who show a propensity toward uncontrolled
eating could potentially be referred for prevention programmes, 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 the study
leader, Susan Mason, of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School
"Of course, preventing childhood abuse in the first place would be the best
strategy of all," Mason said, "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."
Food and abuse
For the study, published in a recent online edition of the journal
Obesity, the researchers examined information compiled in 2001 on more
than 57 000 women involved in the Nurses' Health Study II. Specifically, they
analysed histories on any physical or sexual abuse the women faced in childhood.
The investigators also examined data collected in 2009 on any significant
addiction-like eating behaviours the women developed later in life.
The study revealed that 8% of the participants had a food addiction. In
addition, the researchers found that the women who were abused physically or
sexually before age 18 were nearly twice as likely as others to develop a food
addiction by the time they were middle-aged adults.
For women who endured both physical and sexual abuse, the odds of developing
a food addiction were even greater, according to a journal news release. The
study showed the prevalence of food addiction varied from 6% among women who
were not abused to 16% among those who faced severe physical and sexual
The findings do not prove that childhood abuse causes food addiction in
adulthood, Mason's team noted. More studies on this association are needed
before any conclusions can be made about a causal link. If future research does
support their findings, the next step would be to develop strategies to reduce
the risk of food addiction among women who were abused as children, the
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