February 11, 2017 by Thriving Now

ACE Study - Childhood Trauma and Obesity

One of the clearly missing links in any discussion or plan for weight loss is… safety. If we do not feel safe being slender, fit, and sexually more attractive… we WILL NOT. Our primitive brain will kick in and have us drop out of a successful program, binge, self-sabotage… ANYTHING to return to the safety of being obese. This makes total sense if one understand the role of undischarged trauma and how it affects our biology and behavior.

How Childhood Trauma Can Cause Adult Obesity

By Maia Szalavitz

Dr. Vincent Felitti, founder of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine and director of its obesity-treatment program, was seeing some good results. His patients were losing 50, 80, even hundreds of pounds. He might have considered the program a success, if not for the fact that the participants who were doing the best — those who were both the most obese and losing the most weight — kept dropping out.

Felitti was baffled. Why, invariably, did so many patients quit just as they approached their healthy goal weight? Ella, for instance, a middle-aged woman who entered the program in the mid-1980s morbidly obese at 295 lb., had managed to whittle her frame by 150 lb. over six months. “Instead of being happy, she was having anxiety attacks and was terrified,” Felitti says.

He asked Ella what she thought was going on. “Finally, the story comes out,” he says. “She had been molested as a child, both within her family and outside it. She tried to escape by marrying at 15, at her mother’s urging. It was a disastrous marriage — her husband was crazy jealous. They divorced in two years. She remarried. Her new husband was also jealous. He was convinced that when she was out hanging the laundry, she was sexually posturing to attract the neighbors.”

When Ella was overweight, Felitti learned, her husband was less suspicious. And her fear of his rage — perhaps he saw her new slimmer weight as a provocation? — was probably spurring her anxiety.

Right here we see in Ella a common example. There were traumas in her past as well as emotionally unsafe people (her husband) in her current world. In this situation, losing weight is NOT healthy!

… Discoveries by Felitti and colleagues have also helped give rise to broader work linking stressful experiences early in life — as early as in the womb — to effects on health and behavior later on, such as an increased risk of heart disease or becoming addicted to drugs. Scientists are finding that such effects are not only long-lasting, but can even be inherited by future generations.

… When Felitti first presented his Kaiser Permanente data connecting obesity with child molestation at a national meeting on obesity in 1990, most colleagues dismissed him immediately (one even claimed that obese people made up such stories to justify their “failed lives”). …

For the past several decades, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study has recorded reports of negative childhood experiences in more than 17,000 patients. Adverse experiences include ongoing child neglect, living with one or no biological parent, having a mentally ill, incarcerated or drug-addicted parent, witnessing domestic violence, and sexual, physical or emotional abuse. The researchers then searched for correlations between these experiences and adult health and the risk of disease.

The connections became clear: compared with a person with no adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, a person with four or more has almost double the risk of obesity. Having four or more ACEs more than doubles the risk of heart attack and stroke, and nearly quadruples the risk of emphysema. The risk for depression is more than quadrupled. Although many of these outcomes could reflect the influences of genes and other environmental influences — beyond those occurring in childhood — the tight relationship between increasing ACE numbers and increasing health risks makes the role of child trauma clear. [via Time.com]

The ACE Study has made an important contribution to our understanding of the effects of childhood trauma on chronic health conditions like obsity, heart disease, depression, and more. If you have been suffering with such a condition and you were exposed to traumatic experiences as a child, you may want to explore this further by reviewing the presentations in our Trauma Relief Center.


  • I completely agree.  I sense that when I overeat, gthat I’m stuffing something downward that’s trying to get out.  I think it’s anger for all the abuse of the past.  I find it hard to trust anyone now…..

  • Stormypugs says:

    I was also molested as a child and as an adult I am obese.  I chose being overweight over being skinny because I couldn’t say no to guys.  Now being obese, wanting to loose the weight, not really knowing how to deal with it.

    • Our approach is first to focus on Safety. For us, that means learning HOW your body says YES and NO… and then giving yourself permission to SAY No in different situations. And practicing.

      We recently did two programs around these topics: Breaking Out of Your Shell and Creating Connection. I’d also suggest you look at the Free Yourself program, too. It has great stuff on body YES and Body NO.

      Thanks for sharing with us, and do let us know if there is anything we can do to help. Our group coaching program is another safe place where you can start building support for these changes.

      Rick & Cathy

  • I was molested twice as a child and have suffered unmeasurable abuse my entire adult life. Very few people I talk to make me feel safe at all. Emotionally or otherwise. I am obese and diabetic. I wish I weren’t. Thank you for this insight.

  • Excuse the late arrival. I’m skeptical of this. The anxiety could be explained by physiology. Losing weight can affect the body’s hormones. Dieters often experience short term exhilaration due to the release of stress hormones, followed by a crash.

    • You can explain much of physiology using emotions and much of emotions using physiology. Chicken-egg anyone? If you look at chronic weight issues, there is a HIGH statistical correlation with trauma. Trauma is physio-emotional, meaning the emotions/shock/freeze of trauma and the physiological effects are woven together in such a way as they are inseparable. So you can use either as a doorway, we find. -Rick

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