Links Between Child Abuse and Obesity

Obesity among adult black women slightly more likely if they were abused in childhood

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

(RxWiki News) It's not uncommon to find that psychological and physical conditions are entwined. This can especially occur with different types of trauma or abuse.

Along these lines, a recent study has found a link between sexual and physical abuse during a person's childhood and a higher risk of becoming obese as an adult.

"Seek help from a mental health professional if you're dealing with past trauma or abuse."

In a study led by Renee Boynton-Jarrett, MD, a pediatric primary care physician at Boston Medical Center, researchers looked at data from 33,298 women enrolled in the Black Women's Health Study, a long-term study group that began in 1995.

The women completed questionnaires in 2005 that asked about abuse during childhood and adolescence, and then the women's weight and measurements were taken.

A classification of obesity was based on two different standard measurements: having a body mass index (BMI) over 30 or having a waist circumference over 35 inches. BMI is a ratio of a person's weight to their height.

The researchers found that women were 1.3 times more likely to be obese by either measurement if they had been severely abused as children or teenagers compared to women without a history of abuse.

A history of severe physical or sexual abuse was defined as having four or more incidents of sexual abuse or six or more incidents of physical abuse. Approximately 2 percent of the women reported this level of abuse.

Those with a history of severe abuse were also more likely to be depressed, to smoke, to be unmarried and to have a lower household income.

When the researchers took into account the women's levels of physical activity, diet, symptoms of depression, socioeconomic status and number of times they gave birth, the risk from past abuse dropped slightly, to about 1.14 to 1.18 times greater likelihood of obesity.

Those who experienced "mild" or "moderate" levels of abuse were also slightly more likely to be obese, but only by a very tiny amount.

"Abuse during childhood may adversely shape health behaviors and coping strategies, which could lead to greater weight gain in later life," Dr. Boynton-Jarrett said. "Ultimately, greater understanding of pathways between early life abuse and adult weight status may inform obesity prevention and treatment approaches."

One way in which past abuse may influence future health problems, Dr. Boynton-Jarrett said, is the possible disruptions of hormones or a person's metabolic processes that abuse may cause.

The study was published July 2 in the journal Pediatrics. The research was funded by a grant from the National Cancer Institute.

Dr. Boynton-Jarrett also receives support from the William T. Grant Foundation, Boston University Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women's Health, the NIH Office of Women's Health Research and the Academic Pediatric Association. The authors indicated no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 15, 2012
Last Updated:
January 18, 2013