Children who are abused by their parents are more likely to grow up into obese adults, according to a new study that reveals an intriguing psychological dimension of a worldwide epidemic.
The paper, just published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, is based on data from 1,650 people who participated in the National Survey of Midlife in the U.S. Researchers Emily Greenfield of Rutgers University and Nadine Marks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined the respondents' answers to three sets of questions: those involving memories of childhood punishment, current eating habits and the ways they cope with stress.
For each respondent who reported being abused, the researchers differentiated between physical and psychological violence and specified whether each type of ill treatment had occurred rarely, frequently or not at all. (Psychological violence has been defined in different ways, but it generally includes being ridiculed, neglected, abandoned and/or threatened with physical violence.)
Adults who reported being the victim of both forms of violence frequently were significantly more likely to be obese than those who reported no parental violence of any type. Those who experienced one form of violence frequently and a second form rarely — that is to say, they were regular victims of psychological abuse who also sometimes suffered physical abuse — were also more likely to be obese adults.
Those who reported low levels of violence — that is, both types occurred rarely, or one type occurred rarely and the other not at all — were no more likely to be obese than their counterparts who escaped childhood violence-free.
The reason for the linkage is clear enough: Those who reported both forms of violence occurred frequently, or one form occurred frequently and the other rarely, were more likely to report they respond to stressful situations by eating more than usual.
The report notes that scholars "have suggested a variety of mechanisms through which childhood family violence might be linked to adult obesity," including behavioral impulsivity and poor self-esteem. An abused child may turn to food to find comfort and solace, setting a destructive pattern for his or her entire life.
The researchers concede this study is far from definitive. But they note the results suggest it would be wise for social service and health care professionals to "assess patterns of eating among children facing family violence, as well as among adults with histories of violence."