Because women with food addiction are more likely to be overweight, the study authors suggested their findings could shed light on potential causes of food addiction and obesity, and lead to improved treatment strategies.
More than one-third of American women experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse as children or teens, according to the study. Some studies have suggested that the resulting stress drives these females to eat sugary, high-calorie "comfort" foods.
"Women with histories of trauma who show a propensity toward uncontrolled eating could potentially be referred for prevention programs, while obese women might be screened for early trauma and addiction-like eating so that any psychological impediments to weight loss could be addressed," said the study leader, Susan Mason, of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
"Of course, preventing childhood abuse in the first place would be the best strategy of all," Mason said, "but in the absence of a perfect child abuse prevention strategy, it is important that we try to head off its negative long-term health consequences."
For the study, published in a recent online edition of the journal Obesity, the researchers examined information compiled in 2001 on more than 57,000 women involved in the Nurses' Health Study II. Specifically, they analyzed histories on any physical or sexual abuse the women faced in childhood. The investigators also examined data collected in 2009 on any significant addiction-like eating behaviors the women developed later in life.
The study revealed that 8 percent of the participants had a food addiction. In addition, the researchers found that the women who were abused physically or sexually before age 18 were nearly twice as likely as others to develop a food addiction by the time they were middle-aged adults.
For women who endured both physical and sexual abuse, the odds of developing a food addiction were even greater, according to a journal news release. The study showed the prevalence of food addiction varied from 6 percent among women who were not abused to 16 percent among those who faced severe physical and sexual abuse.
The findings do not prove that childhood abuse causes food addiction in adulthood, Mason's team noted. More studies on this association are needed before any conclusions can be made about a causal link. If future research does support their findings, the next step would be to develop strategies to reduce the risk of food addiction among women who were abused as children, the researchers noted.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about child abuse.