SCIENCE
06/07/2013 08:09 am ET | Updated Jun 07, 2013

Food Addiction In Women Tied To Sexual, Physical Abuse During Childhood

What makes people fat? All sorts of things have been blamed, from too much eating and too little exercise to slow metabolisms and fast food—even air conditioning. But a shocking new study suggests that some cases of obesity grow out of sexual or physical abuse during childhood.

The study, conducted by scientists at Harvard Medical School, showed that women with a personal history of abuse are much more likely than other women to develop a food addiction.

For the study, a team led by Dr. Susan M. Mason, a postdoctoral fellow at the Connors Center for Women's Health and Gender Biology, studied the link between childhood abuse and adult food addiction in 57,321 women enrolled in the Nurses' Health Study II.

(Food addiction involves behaviors such as repeated episodes of eating despite the absence of hunger and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when cutting back on certain foods, Dr. Mason told The Huffington Post in an email.)

Dr. Mason's team found that food addiction was almost twice as common among women who indicated that they had experienced sexual or physical abuse before age 18 than among women with no history of childhood abuse, according to a written statement released in conjunction with the research. Women who had experienced both sexual and physical abuse were even more likely to have food addiction.

Overall, the prevalence of food addiction ran from 6 percent in women with no history of childhood abuse all the way to 16 percent among women who had experienced both sexual and physical abuse.

That's shocking stuff—especially since national surveys indicate that more than a third of American women endured such abuse before reaching age 18, according to the statement. More than two out of three U.S. adults are overweight or obese.

Does the same phenomenon affect men? The study didn't say, of course, as it included only women. But studies have turned up links between childhood abuse and obesity in men, Dr. Mason told The Huffington Post. One 2009 study of more than 15,000 adolescents found that men with a history of childhood sexual abuse were 66 percent more likely to be obese than other men, Time.com reported in 2010.

Dr. Mason's observational study doesn't show that childhood abuse actually causes food addiction or obesity in women. But it's not much of a stretch to believe that there is a causal link.

"We do think that a causal link between childhood abuse and food addiction is plausible," Dr. Mason said in the email, adding that animal and clinical research suggests that people in "stressful environments may overeat so-called 'comfort foods'—these are high-fat and high-sugar foods that can blunt feelings of distress by stimulating reward systems in the brain."

If the study is confirmed by additional research, Dr. Mason said, the next step would be "to identify effective strategies for preventing and treating addiction-like eating behaviors in women with abuse histories."

One potential obstacle to identifying and implementing such strategies is the persistent stigma associated with abuse. As Dr. Vincent Felitti, co-principal investigator of the California-based Adverse Childhood Experiences Study and an expert on the connection between childhood trauma and adult health problems, told Syracuse.com in 2010, "the relationship between childhood sexual abuse and obesity later in life is major, but, since childhood sexual abuse is a topic protected by shame and social taboo, it is concealed by time and by secrecy."

Dr. Mason's study was published in the journal Obesity.

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