University of Minnesota study: Women with PTSD more than twice as likely as those without to meet criteria for food addiction

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A new study from the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota suggests post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not only an important cause of psychological suffering but also a potential risk factor for problematic eating behaviors.

University research published today in JAMA Psychiatry found that women who reported a history of severe PTSD symptoms were more than twice as likely as those without PTSD symptoms to meet criteria for food addiction.

The cross-sectional analysis of more than 49,000 women looked to determine if the number of lifetime PTSD symptoms reported on a screening questionnaire was associated with prevalence of food addiction. The study authors found that the more PTSD symptoms women reported, the more likely they were to meet criteria for food addiction on the Yale Food Addiction Scale.

“The Yale Food Addiction Scale assesses perceived dependence on food in much the same way as one might screen for drug or alcohol dependency,” said Susan Mason, Ph.D., M.P.H., lead author and assistant professor in the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “Although food addiction is not considered a psychiatric diagnosis, the concept may be helpful in identifying a reliance on food to cope with psychological distress.”

Other key findings:

  • More than half of the study sample reported some kind of trauma exposure, with 66 percent of the trauma-exposed reporting at least one lifetime PTSD symptom, and approximately 8 percent reporting 6-7 PTSD symptoms, the maximum number on the PTSD screening questionnaire.
  • Overall, eight percent of the study sample met the criteria for food addiction. This prevalence ranged from 6 percent among women with no trauma and no PTSD symptoms to nearly 18 percent among women with trauma and 6-7 PTSD symptoms. 
  • Women who experienced severe PTSD symptoms earlier in life (before age 10) were 3.7 times more likely to report food addiction than women with no PTSD symptoms.
  • Women who had no PTSD symptoms had no elevation in food addiction prevalence, even if they did have a history of trauma.
  • Women in the study sample who reported food addiction were more likely to be overweight than those who did not report food addiction. 

“Health practitioners should be aware that trauma and PTSD symptoms may be accompanied by problematic eating behaviors associated with obesity,” said Mason. “Our findings need to be replicated longitudinally before we will know whether PTSD precedes food addiction, but our results suggest that interrupting the pathway from PTSD to obesity may require psychological and behavioral interventions that address dependence on food as a response to PTSD.”