Risk of Food Addiction Soars in Women Abused as Children

Posted on September 4th, 2014
Posted in Eating Disorders

RiskofFoodAddictionSoarsinWomenAbusedasChildrenFood addiction is almost twice as common in women who were abused physically or sexually as children, according to a recent study. Being dependent on food is more than simply fulfilling your desire for sustenance; it’s when sugary, fatty and salty foods are used like a drug due to their ability to stimulate the release of dopamine. It can be simply described as “comfort eating” in the extreme, leading to trouble functioning, problems in relationships and having close links to the development of obesity. Finding out about the underlying mechanisms in food addiction is essential due to the potential physical and psychological consequences of food addiction, and the new research indicates that childhood abuse may be a key risk factor. 

Investigating the Link Between Obesity and Abuse

Researchers set out to determine whether the pre-established link between obesity and childhood abuse was related to food addiction, using data from over 57,000 women obtained from the second Nurses’ Health Study. The study had taken participants’ history of physical or sexual abuse as children in 2001, and looked at food addiction in 2009. The researchers used the Yale Food Addiction Scale to determine whether each woman suffered from food addiction, which was defined in the study as having three or more significant symptoms. This includes measures common to many addictions, such as taking the substance (in this case, high-sugar, high-fat and salty foods) in larger amounts (or for longer periods) than originally intended, losing interest in activities that were previously enjoyed, continued use despite negative consequences and the presence of withdrawal symptoms (such as agitation and anxiety). Using this information, the researchers established a risk of food addiction for women who suffered physical or sexual abuse as children in comparison to those who weren’t abused.

Increases in Risk for Abused Women

Eight percent of the participants were classified as being addicted to food, according to the criteria used in the study, more than 8 percent were physically abused and more than 5 percent were sexually abused. As would be expected, those who suffered from food addiction had higher body mass index (BMI) scores on average than those who didn’t have the condition. When the researchers ran the numbers to determine the relative risk, the study revealed that those who were abused physically as children had a 92 percent greater risk of food addiction and those abused sexually had an 87 percent higher risk. In cases of both sexual and physical abuse, the likelihood of food addiction was increased by just less than two and a half times that of the ordinary population.

Comfort Eating, Stress and Food Addiction

“Comfort eating” is a phenomenon familiar to most people, epitomized by the stereotypical post-break-up movie scene in which an upset woman is comforted by friends while they sit eating ice cream directly from the tub in their pajamas. It’s effectively a form of stress reduction; analogous to the problem drinker who has a beer at the end of the day to “calm down” after a busy day at work. Food might not be a drug in the conventional sense of the word, but high-fat, high-sugar and salty foods have a similar effect on the brain to many drugs of addiction, stimulating the release of dopamine. The consequences of this stress-related eating can be very much the same as the consequences of stress-related drinking: addiction and related health problems. Specifically relating to food, this issue may be exacerbated by the changes in physical appearance and the consequent low self-esteem this can bring on, as well as the obvious availability of addictive foods.

Preventing Food Addiction

Food addiction can be treated in a broadly similar way to most drugs of addiction, but as with drugs of addiction, stopping the issue before it develops is preferable to treating it after the fact. The new research is important because it takes a step toward establishing risk factors for the development of food addiction, which doctors and mental health professionals can use to target at-risk women. However, the findings are still relatively preliminary, and would need to be replicated in further research to clearly establish the link.

If the finding is replicated, women with a history of abuse and characteristic “comfort eating” spells could be provided with preemptive psychological treatment. This could involve helping women identify the factors that lead them to depend on food and teach them alternative, healthier methods of stress reduction.

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