The Link Between Obesity and Sexual Abuse

In 2012 The Obesity Action Coalition (OAC) published an article that I cowrote with Dr. Candace White about the link between obesity and sexual abuse. Since then, there has been an upward trend in severe obesity among children. I thought it may be helpful to share an edited version of the article again.

The Link Between Obesity and Sexual Abuse

A simple understanding of childhood obesity would be this: It’s a biological response to overeating and lack of physical activity. However, it is becoming more widely accepted that the childhood obesity epidemic cannot just be thought of in terms of individual choices. We are learning that childhood obesity, which effects one in three children in the U.S., is a complex disease brought on by a multitude of societal problems.

On the front line of this epidemic are clinicians charged with screening, preventing and treating children affected by obesity. However, while the childhood obesity epidemic has flat-lined there is a rising trend of children who are becoming severely obese.

The association between childhood obesity and sexual abuse is strongest in extremely obese children and adults. It is generally thought that extreme obesity is rare; however, it aff ects nine million adults and two million children in the U.S. The statistics for child sexual abuse are just as alarming. The CDC reports that approximately one in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 83,600 children were sexually abused. Sadly, extremely obese children, who have histories of sexual abuse, may be more common than we think.

The effects of child sexual abuse (poor self esteem, poor body image, impulsive behavior and drug abuse) are common predictors of the binge eating and obesity. That is, compulsive eating may be one way to manage the depression related to child sexual abuse. Other factors in the connection between child sexual abuse and obesity, along with eating disorders, might include a desire to “de-sexualize” to protect against further abuse, as well as a range of psychiatric conditions (depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, physical complaints, phobic reactions, low self esteem, suicidal feelings and substance abuse).

Given the number of links between child sexual abuse and obesity, a thorough psychological assessment is necessary, including questions that assess for eating disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse and a history of childhood abuse. Once an assessment is complete, an appropriate treatment plan is determined. Whenever possible, all factors are treated simultaneously, but often the issues that are most debilitating to the individual must be addressed first, such as thoughts of suicide, substance abuse and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. After acute problems are addressed, child sexual abuse and related long-standing issues can be addressed.

The treatment of obesity remains difficult and the success of weight-loss programs is limited. Failure to recognize that obesity may be a coping strategy for those with child sexual abuse histories might explain the failure of the interventions. The AAP has guidelines to help clinicians identify children who are at risk or have a history of sexual abuse. In many cases of suspected child sexual abuse, pediatricians do not feel prepared or experienced enough to assess the effects of and treat sexual abuse and will often refer children to other clinicians with expertise in treating sexually abused children.

Just as pediatricians often shoulder the burden as first responders to the obesity epidemic, they must now, too, provide essential and timely guidance to patients they suspect are being sexually abused. Furthermore, many pediatricians have reported inadequate training and lack of comprehensive tools to effectively care for children affected by obesity, and the reports are echoed regarding child sexual abuse.

We must respond to this urgent call for resources of training and tools to help our most vulnerable children live safe and healthy lives. Moreover, clinical obesity interventions need to address the possible coexisting psychiatric problems that might require treatment before any attempts at weight-loss.
Clinicians treating children for obesity need to be aware of the link between obesity and child sexual abuse to respond and care most effectively for these children. Yes, a history of child sexual abuse further complicates the already complex issue of childhood obesity. However, it is important to remember that both are treatable under the care of informed and trained professionals.

Source: Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.