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Abuse and Eating Problems

Eating disorder therapists have long recognized the correlation between female clients who were sexually or physically abused having problems with food. I suspect there might be a correlation for men and even one for emotional abuse as well. Science is only beginning to understand the magnitude of stressing our nervous systems early on.

“Abused Girls May Binge on Food as Adults” by Salynn Boyles (MedPage Today, 5/30/13) talks about this correlation and draws from a study in the journal Obesity entitled, “Abuse victimization in children or adolescence and risk of food addiction in adult women” (Mason, SM, et al, 2013, DOI:10.1002/oby.20500). Its conclusion: “Women who experience both sexual and physical abuse during childhood had a more than twofold increased risk for food addiction in adulthood. The analysis of data on 57,321 women enrolled in Nurses Health Study II (NHSII) revealed that severe physical and sexual abuse were each associated with a roughly 90% increased risk for food addiction. Suffering both severe physical and sexual abuse during childhood was associated with a 2.40 relative risk (95%) for food addiction later in life.”

This study revealed that “national surveys suggest that more than a third of girls in the US experience some degree of physical or sexual abuse before they reach adulthood.” It also widened the range of abuse-related eating problems to include bingeing and food obsessions, rather than only obesity, anorexia, and bulimia.

Wondering what constitutes abuse? Here are the study’s criteria: Sexual abuse was characterized as “sexual touching” or “forced sexual activity.” Physical abuse was described as “mild (being pushed, grabbed, or shoved at any frequency or being kicked, bitten, or punched once or hit with something once), moderate (being hit with something more than once or physically attacked once), and severe (being kicked, bitten, or punched or physically attacked more than once or ever choked or burned).”

Those of you who already have recognized and acknowledge the abuse you suffered as a child, may be surprised at what behaviors fall into the moderate or severe categories. Those of you who never considered yourselves survivors of abuse may be shocked at the above descriptions. The effects of abuse do no go away on their own. I encourage any of you who have been abused to seek counseling—the sooner the better—not only to help you de-toxify what happened to you and put the blame squarely on the perpetrators, but also to help you resolve your current eating problems.