Trauma and Food Addiction Linked for Women

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Women with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be more likely to have food addiction, or a feeling of dependence on food, new research suggests.

In the study, researchers surveyed more than 49,000 female nurses ages 25 to 42 and asked the women whether they had ever experienced a traumatic event, such as childhood abuse, the violent death of a loved one, or a miscarriage or stillbirth. Researchers then asked the women who had experienced such an event whether they had also experienced PTSD symptoms as a result of the trauma. Those symptoms could include losing interest in activities that were once enjoyable, and feeling isolated or distant from other people.

Participants were also asked whether they experienced symptoms of food addiction, such as frequently eating when they were not hungry, feeling sluggish or fatigued from overeating, and having physical withdrawal symptoms when they cut down on certain foods. The researchers considered women to have a food addiction only if they reported at least three of the condition's symptoms. [8 Tips for Fighting Sugar Cravings]

Overall, 66 percent of those who had experienced a traumatic event reported at least one symptom of PTSD, according to the study.

The researchers also found that 8 percent of all women in the study had food addiction. But this disorder was more common among those with PTSD symptoms: Nearly 18 percent of women with 6 to 7 symptoms of PTSD had food addiction, compared to 6 percent of women who had no PTSD symptoms during their lifetime. (Although the study did not ask whether a doctor had diagnosed the women with PTSD, people with four or more symptoms of PTSD may have the condition, the researchers said.)

The link between food addiction and PTSD symptoms was strongest among those whose PTSD symptoms occurred before age 10.

Previous studies have found that people with PTSD are at increased risk for obesity, and the new study provides one explanation for that link: People with PTSD may use eating to cope with psychological distress, the researchers said.

"Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that observed links between PTSD and obesity might be partly explained by a tendency to use food to self-medicate traumatic stress symptoms," the researchers, from the University of Minnesota, wrote in the Sept. 17 issue of the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

However, because the study did not ask women when they started experiencing symptoms of food addiction, the study cannot determine which came first, the PTSD or the food addiction.

If studies that follow people forward over time can replicate the new results, "these findings suggest that interrupting the pathway from PTSD to obesity may require psychological and behavioral interventions that address dependence on eating to cope with distress," the researchers said.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.