Researchers at the University of Toronto have released the data from their study, Carrying the Pain of Abuse, which aims to examine the link between childhood physical abuse and adult obesity. The results were published in the latest issue of Obesity Facts, a European journal on obesity.
The findings of the study are interesting, though not terribly surprising. Women who had been abused as children were 35% more likely to be classified as “obese” (calculated using the questionable measure of one’s BMI) versus women who had not experienced childhood physical abuse. The results were the same even after accounting for other factors known to affect weight, such as whether or not they smoke or abuse drugs, their socioeconomic status, age, race, and mental health history.
What the study did surprisingly discover, though, is that men who were abused as children, on the other hand, were not any more likely to be obese than men who had not been physically abused. This is an important reminder that gender is a critical element that is too often ignored when discussing physical health. If the cause of obesity can be so drastically different between men and women, then the discussion surrounding the “solution” must be as well.
In theorizing why the results are so different between genders, the researchers posit a few options: That women who have been sexually abused might look to over-eating as a means of making themselves less sexually attractive to men, that women believe they can use their body weight as a “shield” to protect themselves (…um, what?), or that females could be more likely to use ‘comfort foods’ to help soothe emotional traumas, to name a few.
There is a lot that still needs to be done with the study (they only asked one question to determine whether a person had been abused, “Were you ever abused by someone close to you?” – rather than a series of questions that would help to delve deeper into the issue, and increase the data’s validity) – but I’m glad that Canadian researchers are looking into the issue, and that more studies like this are being done, allowing us to have more complete data on the mental and physical health of our population, as well as the importance of gender in determining emotional behaviours.
I’m also glad that researchers are recognizing that in order for governments to truly start finding solutions to the obesity epidemic, they must look at mental and emotional reasons for eating, rather than simply the physical or ‘bad habit’ discourse we’re all used to. And again, to examine these factors with the understanding that males and females will have different reactions.
Or, as the Toronto Star’s Carol Goar concludes, in her misleading and over-sensationalized article “Abused girls grow into obese women:” “The value of studies like Fuller-Thomson’s is that they prompt health officials to rethink their assumptions and make fat jokes a little less funny.”
Thanks, Toronto Star, for always keeping it classy.
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