Food addiction is an unofficial term used to describe a relationship to food and eating that essentially mirrors the drug- or alcohol-related behaviors found in people affected by substance addictions. While the condition is not recognized by the highly influential American Psychiatric Association, significant evidence support its existence. According to the results of a new study published in May 2013 in the journal Obesity, women who have a history of either extreme childhood sexual abuse or extreme childhood physical abuse have a much greater chance of developing a food addiction than women who don’t have a history that includes these forms of abuse.
Food Addiction Basics
Supporters of the food addiction model believe that the condition develops in roughly the same way as alcohol or drug addiction, namely through abnormal boosting of the chemical in the brain that’s responsible for producing pleasurable sensations. Generally speaking, affected individuals begin the cycle of addiction when they start using pleasure-producing foods in order to mask or compensate for the effects of painful or unpleasant emotional states, physical pain, the symptoms of anxiety or depression, or heightened stress levels. The foods most capable of supporting addiction by altering normal brain chemistry typically belong to the carbohydrate family, which includes sugars and starches. In a study published in 2013 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital linked food addiction risks to heavy consumption of highly processed carbohydrates that rapidly deliver sugar to the bloodstream.
Childhood Abuse Basics
Physical abuse and sexual abuse are just two of the types of abuse that can occur during childhood. Other prominent examples include neglect of a child’s basic needs and nonphysical emotional abuse. Any form of contact that produces an intentional injury can qualify as physical child abuse, including such things as punching, choking, biting, burning, shaking, beating, slapping or pinching. Child sexual abuse encompasses any active or passive involvement of underage children in sexual activity. Specific activities that qualify under this heading include sexual intercourse or any other form of penetration, fondling, oral sex, forcing a child to have sex with others, forcing a child to witness sexual acts and exposing a child to any type of pornographic material. The term severe childhood abuse does not have a standard definition. However, doctors and researchers typically use this term to refer to particularly intense, lengthy, or physically exploitative forms of abuse.
In the study published in Obesity, a team of researchers affiliated with Harvard University used data from a survey called the Nurse’s Health Study II to examine the connections between childhood physical and sexual abuse and food addiction in over 57,000 middle-aged American women. For the purposes of the study, childhood physical and sexual abuse were defined as abusive acts that occurred before the age of 18. The researchers defined food addiction as the presence of at least three addictive behaviors toward food that were severe enough to produce mental anguish or diminish the ability to function well in everyday life; roughly 8 percent of the study’s participants met this unofficial standard.
After reviewing their findings, the authors of the study made several key findings. First, they concluded that, when taken as a whole, middle-aged women with a history of some form of childhood sexual abuse or childhood physical abuse develop a food addiction at almost double the rate found in women who lack such a history. They also concluded that the highest risks for food addiction appear in women with combined histories of severe childhood sexual abuse and severe childhood physical abuse; about 16 percent of women in this category develop an addictive relationship to food. The second highest level of risk appears in women with combined histories of more moderate forms of physical and sexual childhood abuse. By comparison, about 6 percent of middle-aged women without a childhood abuse history develop a food addiction.
The authors of the study in Obesity emphasize the preliminary nature of their conclusions regarding childhood abuse and food addiction. They also note the need for further research before anyone can truly say whether or not childhood physical and sexual abuse actually act as causes of food addiction, or merely happen to appear more often in the histories of food-addicted individuals. If childhood abuse does act as a cause of food addiction, doctors may one day be able to use this information to reduce addiction risks in affected individuals.