Women with a history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms are more likely to meet certain criteria for food addiction, according to a new study from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. The results of the study were published Sept. 17 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. The researchers performed a cross-sectional analysis of survey responses from more than 49,000 women. The survey examined each respondent for a lifetime history of PTSD symptoms, as well as for food-related behaviors that meet the criteria for food addiction laid out by the Yale Food Addiction Scale. More than half of the respondents in the study reported having experienced some kind of traumatic event during their lifetime, such as childhood abuse, stillbirth or miscarriage, violent death of a loved one or spousal abuse. Of the women who reported a history of trauma, approximately 66 percent also reported experiencing at least one symptom of PTSD. Approximately 8 percent of the respondents reported experiencing six or seven symptoms of PTSD, or the maximum number of symptoms possible on the questionnaire. The women who reported a history of traumatic experience and six or seven PTSD symptoms were nearly three times as likely to meet the criteria for food addiction as women with no history of trauma and no history of symptoms of PTSD. Approximately 8 percent of the 49,000 respondents met the criteria for food addiction according to the Yale Food Addiction Scale. Among the women without PTSD symptoms, the rate of food addiction was 6 percent. In contrast, the rate of food addiction among the women who reported all or nearly all of the symptoms used to diagnose PTSD was nearly 18 percent.
Age During PTSD Symptoms
The Minnesota study also found that food addiction was even more likely among women who experienced symptoms of PTSD at a comparatively young age. The women in the study who reported PTSD symptoms prior to age 10 were 3.7 times more likely to meet the criteria for food addiction at the time of the survey than the women with no history of trauma or PTSD symptoms. Despite the fact that studies related to food addiction are becoming more common, the existence of food addiction is by no means agreed upon by everyone. Some experts argue that there is strong evidence showing some people develop food-related behaviors that strongly resemble known forms of addiction. Certain studies have found that sugar can cause the reward centers of the brain to “light up” in ways that resemble the effects of known addictive substances. However, other experts say the evidence that food can be addictive is not yet convincing. They argue that genetic predispositions for sugary and salty foods, cultural factors such as the comparative cheapness and convenience of unhealthy foods compared to healthy foods and personal factors like varying degrees of self-control and impulsivity explain away much of the evidence for food addiction.
Addiction or Not, Unhealthy Food-Related Behaviors Can Be Risky
Regardless of a food addiction diagnosis, this study suggests that a traumatic history and PTSD symptoms put women at risk for unhealthy food-related behaviors. The study also revealed that the women who met the Yale criteria for food addiction were more likely to be overweight, meaning that these women are at greater risk for obesity and associated health problems.