Women Eat Away Because of Abuse

Food addiction and obesity found in women with histories of physical and sexual abuse

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Women who were abused while growing up may have a higher tendency for addictive relationships with food. This tendency could explain higher rates of obesity in abused women.

A recent study looked at the risk for food addiction and obesity in women who had been physically and/or sexually abused as children or teens.

The results of this study found that the more severe the abuse, the higher the risk for the woman to have a food addiction, which increased the risk for obesity.

"Talk to a therapist about food addictions."

Susan M. Mason, PhD, from the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, led this study on the risk for food addiction among women who were abused earlier in life.

Previous studies have shown a relationship between child abuse and adult obesity. The authors of this study proposed that the stress involved with child abuse acted as a trigger for the desire to consume high fat and high sugar foods.

According to the authors, high fat and high sugar foods, like certain drugs, stimulate the reward system in the brain and dampen the stress response in the brain and the body.

For this study, the researchers surveyed women in the ongoing Nurses’ Health Study II, which recruited 116,430 registered nurses in 1989.

In 2001, researchers received surveys from 57,321 of the women about experiences with physical and sexual abuse before turning 18 years of age.

The abuse survey assessed the specifics of when the abuse occurred, how severe it was, what type of abuse it was and who perpetrated the abuse.

Surveys were sent out to assess food addiction behaviors as well. The researchers defined food addiction as having three or more of the following seven symptoms when stressed:

  • Eating when no longer hungry four or more times per week
  • Worrying about cutting down on certain foods four or more times per week
  • Feeling sluggish or fatigued from overeating two or more times per week
  • Experiencing negative feelings from overeating that get in the way of other activities two or more times per week
  • Having physical withdrawal symptoms when cutting down on certain foods two or more times per week
  • Continuing to eat the same amounts despite real emotional or physical problems due to overeating
  • Feeling the need to eat more food to reduce distress

The results of the study found that 19 percent of the women reported mild physical abuse, 26 percent reported moderate physical abuse and 9 percent reported severe physical abuse.

A total of 22 percent of women reported sexual touching only, 6 percent reported forced sexual activity and 5 percent reported repeated forced sexual activity.

Overall, 8 percent of the group met the criteria for food addiction.

Results also showed that women with food addiction tended to have a higher body mass index (BMI).

BMI is calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by their height in meters. A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 units is considered normal, while 25 to 29.9 units is considered overweight and 30 units or higher is considered obese. One BMI unit is roughly 6 to 7 pounds for women.

“Women meeting the criteria for food addiction were 6 units of BMI heavier in 2009 than women not meeting the food addiction criteria; almost two-thirds of women with food addiction were obese...compared to a quarter of women without food addiction,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers found that as the physical and/or sexual abuse worsened, the risk for having food addiction increased.

Women who had experienced mild physical abuse were at 23 percent higher risk for food addiction than women who had not been abused at all.

Women who had experienced mild physical abuse and sexual touching only were at 66 percent higher risk for food addiction than women who had not been abused at all.

The risk for food addiction increased in women who had experienced moderate physical abuse and/or forced sexual activity.

Women who had experienced severe physical abuse and repeated sexual activity were at 2.4 times the risk for food addiction compared to women who had not been abused at all.

The risk for food addiction were higher in women who had been abused during childhood and adolescence compared to women who had only been abused during either childhood or adolescence.

“A history of child abuse is strongly associated with food addiction in this population,” said the study authors.

This study was published in May in Obesity.

The National Institutes of Health supported funding for this project. No conflicts of interest were declared.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 29, 2013
Last Updated:
January 10, 2014