Abused children may become obese adults

Severity of abuse in childhood or adolescence is associated with an increased risk for overall and central obesity in adulthood, report researchers.

"Abuse in childhood may adversely shape health behaviors and coping strategies, which could lead to greater weight gain in later life," said lead author Renée Boynton-Jarret from Boston University School of Medicine in Massachusetts, USA, in a press statement.

Childhood abuse has previously been linked to obesity in adulthood, write the researchers in Pediatrics. However, "little is known regarding the impact of abuse severity on risk, potential mechanisms are poorly understood, and few studies have been conducted among minority populations," they explain.

In the current study of 33,298 participants (median age 49 years) from the Black Women's Health Study who completed a self-administered questionnaire on early life experiences of abuse, nearly 58% of the women reported at least one instance of abuse as a child or teenager.

The frequency of abuse severity was worked out by categorizing individuals into those who had reported "mild," "moderate," or "severe" abuse, depending on the type and amount of abuse inflicted. This was then reviewed using a nine-item instrument based on the Conflict Tactics Scale and the Pregnancy Abuse Assessment Screen.

In comparison with those reporting no abuse in childhood or adolescence, those reporting severe physical or sexual abuse were significantly more likely to have overall obesity (body mass index ≥30) in adulthood, at a relative risk (RR) of 1.17, while those reporting both severe physical and sexual abuse had a RR of 1.29.

Adjustment for potential confounders including reproductive history, health behaviors, and depressive symptoms did attenuate these associations, but they still remained significant, at RRs of 1.09 and 1.14.

In a parallel analysis for central obesity, the team found that compared with those who experienced no abuse, the adjusted RR was 1.12 for a waist circumference of more than 35 inches if the women had experienced either severe physical or sexual child abuse, while this RR was 1.18 for individuals who had suffered severe abuse of both types.

"Research has demonstrated that psychobehavioral responses to childhood violence included the use of food in response to stress in adulthood," note the researchers.

"Emotion-focused coping strategies include eating more in general and eating more of a certain type of 'comfort foods' in response to stress," they add.

Furthermore, social adversities may influence mood and mental health and therefore increase the risk for sedentary behaviors and low physical activity, suggests the team.

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Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally first developed an interest in medical communications when she took on the role of Journal Development Editor for BioMed Central (BMC), after having graduated with a degree in biomedical science from Greenwich University.


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