Do Childhood Adverse Events Contribute to Childhood Obesity?

To anyone involved in adult obesity management, harrowing stories of adverse life events that may have significantly contributed to weight gain, are neither uncommon nor surprising. 

While retrospective data in adults often implicates adverse events during childhood, longitudinal studies on the role of such events on body weight during childhood are less common. 

This is now the topic of a study by Miriam Schiff and colleagues published in Public Health Nutrition.

The researchers looked at the relationship between adverse childhood events (ACEs) and excess weight  in longitudinal data from three waves of the second cohort of the US National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW II), which sampled cases from US Child Protective Services investigations that were closed between February 2008 and April 2009 nationwide. The sample included 3170 kids ranging in age between infancy and 14 at baseline. 

Abusive and neglectful events were measured using the Conflict Tactics Scale – Parent-Child version at each wave, whereby hitting with a fist or kicking, beating, choking, burning and threatening with or using a knife or gun were coded as physical abuse; leaving a child alone when an adult should be present, not being able to provide food, being too drunk or high, or not being able to get to a doctor when a child needed it were coded as neglect; any forced sexual contact was coded as sexual abuse; so caught up with problems that parent did not tell child (s)he were not loved were coded as emotional neglect and shout/yell/scream, swear or curse, called dumb or lazy or threaten to send away were coded as psychological abuse

While supporting the hypothesis that ACEs play a role in the development of childhood obesity, both the number and nature of events as well as the sex of the child appear to matter. 

Thus, for e.g., while for all youth, neglect as a single event was associated with about 2.5 greater odds of obesity, for girls who experienced neglect, the odds ratio was closer to 5.  

Not all ACEs were positively associated with obesity. Thus, girls, experiencing physical abuse or having a parent with mental health problems had decreased odds of obesity (OR = 0.4), while boys who experienced sexual abuse were likewise less likely to develop obesity (OR =0.06).

As the authors point out, several limitations to these data must be considered. For one, the assessment of ACEs was entirely based on parental reports. Furthermore, it is not clear that these data are fully representative of the population at risk due to the way that individuals were ascertained.

If anything, the data highlight the need for more research (including qualitative assessments) into understanding the role of ACEs in childhood obesity. 

Berlin, D