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Childhood abuse and neglect may be linked to adult obesity

October 15, 2009 |  3:51 pm

Childhood neglect and abuse can leave mental and physical scars, but that's not all -- a new study says there may also be a correlation between abuse and obesity.

Kopd6enc Researchers looked at court records of 410 children up to age 11 from 1967 to 1971 in a Midwest county who had court-substantiated cases of physical and sexual abuse and neglect. They were matched with 303 children of similar ages, sex, race and ethnicity and social class who had no abuse or neglect. On a followup of both groups about 30 years later, their body mass index scores were compared.

Among whites, those who were abused and neglected overall and those who were physically abused had significantly higher BMI scores as adults than the control group. Childhood physical abuse predicted higher adult BMI scores even when controlling for demographics, smoking and drinking alcohol. However, childhood sexual abuse or neglect were not predictive of having a higher BMI as an adult.

While this doesn't prove a causative effect, the study authors propose two theories why BMI scores could be higher among these groups: The physical abuse could have had affected the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, in turn increasing peripheral cortisol, which has been associated with abdominal obesity. That axis is a part of the neuroendicrine system and controls functions such as calorie burning and reactions to stress. Also, overeating could be a way of coping with the trauma of abuse.

The study appears in the October issue of the journal Obesity.

-Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Tim Sloan / AFP/Getty Images

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Comments (2)

I appreciate the careful attention here to the distinction between correlation and causation -- a distinction ignored by much (if not most) reporting on research on "obesity"-related topics.

However, must we be subjected to yet another photograph of headless fat people?? Fat people (yes, we are reclaiming the word "fat") are human beings, not lumps of flesh to be served up like sideshow freaks for the tittilation of your readers. I realize it's easier to ignore our feelings and our needs when we are dehumanized in photographs, but contrary to public opinion, we all have heads.

The commentary on underlying causality leaves out the important issue of the benefits of obesity. Obesity is an effective way of de-sexing oneself - an important factor in childhood sexual abuse and rape. It is physically protective: "Throwing your weight around." And it is socially protective: people expect less of you if you are fat. These uncomfortable benefits are important for many people. They are the other half of the equation, the absence of which leaves us mouthing empty platitudes about obesity being bad for you. One might wonder how many treatment failures are based on this unawareness. An additional point is that many people whose obesity began in childhood had it coincide with parental divorce: "Sit down and have something to eat. You'll feel better." Obesity often is not the problem: it is the marker for the problem, and sometimes a solution.



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