Obesity in adult women linked to childhood abuse, social background more than in men, suggests study

The study sought to understand the social and environmental factors that contribute to obesity in men and women separately.

Myupchar November 27, 2020 14:36:32 IST
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Obesity in adult women linked to childhood abuse, social background more than in men, suggests study

Obesity in woman linked to childhood distress. Image courtesy Mallinaltzin/Wikimedia Commons

Obesity is a rising concern across the world and is linked to a greater incidence of other chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. Some of the most common ways to reduce obesity and its associated risks are through lifestyle methods like a change in diet, greater activity levels and cutting off obesogenic behaviours like binge-eating.

However, not everyone is able to pick up these good habits or cut back on unhealthy ones to control or reduce their weight. Usually, society tends to blame such people grappling with overweight and obesity for having a lack of willpower and grit to change their lifestyle. A new study published in PLoS One suggests that being obese is not always an individual’s sole responsibility as their personal and social background — especially a history of abuse or trauma in childhood — may share a large proportion of the blame.

Obesity beyond personal control?

The study, conducted by researchers based at Japan’s Kobe University Graduate School of Medicine, suggests that such factors especially shape obesogenic behaviour in women. The study sought to understand the social and environmental factors that contribute to obesity in men and women separately and so the researchers used the data from a community-based questionnaire survey of 5,425 residents aged 20 to 64 years in Kobe, Japan.

The personal and social background factors examined through the survey included marital status, family structure, employment, household income, residence type, welfare enrollment, economic conditions of current life, current educational level, extracurricular activity in school, living conditions at 15 years of age and childhood adversity.

The researchers found a 27.2 percent prevalence of obesity among men and 10.6 percent prevalence in women. Personal or social factors like unmarried status, low household income, welfare enrollment, difficulty in current economic conditions, low educational levels and childhood adversity were found to have a strong association with obesity in the female participants. Childhood adversity, especially various types of abuse, was found to be significantly linked to obesity in women.

Strangely enough, the researchers could not find any such association between social or environmental factors and obesity in men. The researchers, therefore, concluded that the strong association between childhood abuse and obesity in adult women establishes a link that is not completely under the control of these women and obesity treatments for them should be tailored taking this history of abuse into consideration. The researchers also suggest that child welfare policies and institutions should be updated to alleviate this future risk of obesity in the girl child, especially if she has had to endure any form of abuse while growing up.

Obesity and childhood abuse

It must be noted that although this may reportedly be the first study to establish such a clear link between childhood abuse and obesogenic behaviour in adult women, it’s certainly not the first to make the connection or attempt examining it more closely. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Obesity and Weight Loss Therapy suggests that American Indian participants who endured verbal abuse, stigma and neglect during childhood not only suffered from obesity during their adult lives but also had a higher prevalence of hypertension, metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Another study published in Obesity Reviews in 2014 explains that childhood abuse tends to have a positive dose-response association with adult obesity. This means that the greater the exposure to childhood abuse the higher the likelihood of mental and emotional dysfunction, maladaptive coping responses, stress, inflammation and metabolic disturbances that lead to obesity. These studies came to the same conclusion as the new study in PLoS One, that identifying and providing properly tailored therapies to children and adults with adverse life events or a history of abuse can play a major role in curbing obesogenic behaviours and thereby may reduce obesity better too.

For more information, read our article on Obesity

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