Sustenance abuse

A lot of people have a hard time thinking of food as a source of addiction on the same level as alcohol, nicotine, gambling, etc. And the reason they give is always the same.

“Well, we all have to eat.”

Sure, we all have to eat. But do we all have to eat poorly? Make bad decisions at mealtime? Or consume portions of food that could serve four people?

The answer all of these questions, of course, is no. And yet we are still unwilling as a nation to recognize that food kills more people than anything else.

We haven’t declared a war on food like milkshakes, pizza, or potato chips. In fact, we relish it, savor it and deify it.

This isn’t just a shame… it’s a tragedy. Because it means that thousands of addicts out there aren’t getting the help that they need.

Clearly, certain foods act on the brain in much the same way that controlled substances do. (Sugar, anyone???)

So is it really any surprise that certain populations are more vulnerable to this threat than others?

In fact, one new study showed that women who suffered severe abuse as children may be more likely to struggle with food addiction later in life. This makes perfect sense when you consider that many addicts have at some point in their life been victims of one form of abuse or another.

A recent analysis of more than 57,000 women from the famous, ongoing Nurses’ Health Study II showed that survivors of childhood abuse, whether physical or sexual, face double the risk of later food addiction.

It’s not the first time research has established an association like this. Nor is it a particularly surprising finding, when you consider how easy it is to turn to food for comfort in times of stress.

But the figures are striking, all the same.

Results indicated that 8.2 percent of the women in this study fit the clinical bill for food addiction. Out of this same population, 8.5 percent had suffered severe physical abuse as children or teens. And 5.3 percent reported ongoing sexual abuse.

Ultimately, either type of abuse raised a woman’s risk of food addiction by about 90 percent. And the risk was even higher if the woman had suffered both physical and sexual abuse.

As you might expect, women with a food addiction were also heavier, with BMIs about 6 units higher on average.

And while we’re talking numbers, here’s another startling statistic for you. (Probably the most disturbing of them all, actually.) More than a third of all American women have suffered some form of abuse before their 18th birthday.

This is a very serious problem. And it deserves much more attention than it’s currently getting.

Obviously, preventing childhood abuse in the first place would be the best “treatment” plan of all. And if this were a perfect world, the solution would be simple. But it’s not.

That’s why it’s so crucial that we work harder to minimize the damaging effects that abuse can have on survivors’ health in the long-term.

That might entail screening women who have chronic difficulty losing weight. And getting them the psychological support they need to be successful in meeting their goals and getting healthy again.

But if this is going to happen, we first need to recognize these consequences for what they are, instead of hiding them behind another layer of shame. Survivors have suffered enough. And they deserve to have their unique circumstances handled with respect, sensitivity, and compassion.

Abuse is a terrible thing that gets swept under the rug in this country. And addictive eating behaviors are just another tragic byproduct of that very sad fact.

It’s time America truly examines itself. From what’s happening behind its closed doors… to what’s happening on the end of its forks.

Abuse victimization in childhood or adolescence and risk of food addiction in adult women. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2013 May 2.