Rape of Proserpina

Childhood Trauma Is a Cause of Obesity – Can We Talk?

In the popular imagination, obesity is simple. Many people presume that the root cause is obvious. But the presumptions vary. Some like to blame the food industry – for junk food, too much sugar, and predatory marketing. In the UK, where weight bias is common, the NHS is blunt. “Obesity is generally caused by eating too much and moving too little,“ says their website. But reality doesn’t match that facile explanation. The unpleasant truth is that childhood trauma sometimes lies at the root of obesity. Perhaps because it is unpleasant, this fact is often missing from our thinking about preventing obesity.

However, an excellent new systematic review makes it plain that we need to pay attention.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

The term of art is adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Under this term, many different experiences share one common thread – traumatic events. Examples include the experience of violence, abuse, or neglect. It might be violence at home or in the community. It might stem from having a family member attempt or die by suicide.

Krista Schroeder and colleagues at Temple University screened 6,966 studies for their review. In the end, they included data from 24 studies in their analysis. Half of them were cross-sectional and half were longitudinal. In sum, they found a clear association between childhood trauma and obesity. The effect can take two to five years to show up. Girls may be more sensitive to it and sexual abuse seems to have a more potent effect than other ACEs. Further, there may be an additive effect from having multiple instances of such experiences.

Easier to Talk About Gluttony and Sloth?

In a certain sense, the omission of childhood trauma from discussions about obesity and its causes does not surprise us. This is a difficult subject. But it is common. About 61 percent of adults report having had an adverse childhood experience. Nearly one in six have had such experiences repeatedly – four times or more.

However, avoiding this subject skews our approaches to preventing obesity. If we presume it’s all about sugar, junk food, gluttony, and sloth, then we put our energies into fighting with the food industry. We vainly presume that nudging, teaching, or shaming people into eating less and moving more will solve the problem. So far, none of that has worked out very well.

Childhood trauma is preventable. It is a cause of childhood obesity. Perhaps it is time to think more broadly about preventing childhood obesity and consider the impact of childhood trauma.

Click here for the paper by Schroeder et al, and here for more on the evidence base for preventing adverse childhood experiences. For a very personal account of the interaction between trauma and obesity, we recommend this interview with Roxane Gay, as well as her renowned book, Hunger.

Rape of Proserpina, painting by Rembrandt / WikiArt

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February 8, 2021

3 Responses to “Childhood Trauma Is a Cause of Obesity – Can We Talk?”

  1. February 08, 2021 at 9:21 am, John DiTraglia said:

    Yeah this doesn’t seem reasonable on the face of it. And even if it’s true it’s no easier to treat. I can’t help thinking that child abuse is less than it used to be now in direct correlation to the rise of obesity.
    I don’t see how childhood trauma caused Roxane Gay’s obesity even though she might believe that.
    So how about this theory – maybe kids and adults don’t have as much stress in their lives as we used to and that’s the cause of obesity.

    • February 08, 2021 at 10:20 am, Ted said:

      If you have not read Hunger, I would encourage you to do so, John.

  2. February 08, 2021 at 11:47 am, Mary-Jo said:

    It is stunningly disappointing, actually, irresponsible for the NHS in the UK to put such a simplistic statement of eating less, moving more to prevent obesity after the resources invested, reports and results received and published in the Foresight Project clearly showing the multifactorial reality of obesity. TBH, the multifactorial aspect of obesity requiring multidisciplinary attention has been described since the 70’s. What are we doing so wrong that we are STILL *here* with care and treatment being so devoid of holistic attention?! I’m not blaming, just looking for how we can move forward and do better — where do we start, who do we need to influence for real change in the right direction?!