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PTSD Risk Factor For Weight Gain

sharma-obesity-sexualabuseRegular readers will be well aware of the common association of emotional, physical or sexual trauma with increased emotional eating, binge eating disorder and weight gain.

Now, a study by Kubzansky and colleagues from the Harvard School of Public Health, published in JAMA-Psychiatry, confirms the relationship between post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and excess weight gain in the Nurses Health Study II.

This study includes over 54,000 participants, who were between 24 and 44 years of age in 1989 and were prospectively followed up to 2005.

Among women already presenting with at least 4 PTSD symptoms at the time of inclusion in the study, BMI increased more steeply during follow up than those, who did not have such symptoms.

Furthermore, women, who developed PTSD symptoms after inclusion in the study, showed steeper BMI gain and increased risk of becoming overweight or obese (almost 40% greater risk) despite having a normal weight trajectory prior to this diagnosis.

These effects were independent of whether or not the women also showed signs of depression.

These findings should remind us to explore a history of PTSD in patients presenting with excess weight and take appropriate measures to prevent weight gain in patients experiencing trauma that may prompt PTSD.

If you have experience with weight gain following a significant trauma, I’d like to hear about it.

Thunder Bay, ON

ResearchBlogging.orgKubzansky LD, Bordelois P, Jun HJ, Roberts AL, Cerda M, Bluestone N, & Koenen KC (2013). The Weight of Traumatic Stress: A Prospective Study of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms and Weight Status in Women. JAMA psychiatry (Chicago, Ill.) PMID: 24258147




  1. This is consistent of my experience of PTSD. After I was diagnosed, I gained 30 pounds which is signficant on my 5.2 frame. I was never certain if it was the medication or everything else. As I had signficant body image issues to begin with (victim of sexual abuse), this weight gain was very hard to deal with emotionally speaking and was a big blow to my already shaky self esteem.
    I still struggle and have only been able to successfully keep off 15 of those extra pounds. The rest seems to stick to me like glue. Unfortunately I still do not have the extra energy required to tackle the rest in a dedicated fashion…

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  2. I actually had a bit of the opposite of a stressful situation causing weight gain when young. I was a battered child and think that the high level of tension I lived with kept me extremely thin then. Once things were supervised and better at home I began putting on weight but I kept seeing myself as skin and bones even when I was not till one day when I realized that I had become fat, so at eighteen went on a (successful) year long supervised diet.

    Granted, my only PTSD bout (visual overlay) in my 60+ years happened during my father’s final illness and was short enough — plus I realized what was going on so was able to think logically about it and get through it fine — that it had little effect, for which I am grateful.

    I DID gain weight after an absolutely horrible situation with a complication to follow-up procedures for an invasive eye surgery (which involved my being deprived of self-sovereignty by the surgeon on two days for two eye injections and then 5 eye stitches — a behavior on his part which caused me to have a good crying jag once back in my home state and my insistance on a local expert for any follow-up care instead of returning), and gained weight afterward slowly for a while but that was pretty clearly due to chronic low grade nausea from being unable to focus my eyes together for a number of months and stopped when I found that making fresh ginger root water reduced nausea, and then pretty much finished up when my brain began mostly ignoring my bad eye except in darkness of for some motion. So, I do not think the emotional aspects of that situation impacted my gain, though in all honesty it would be impossible to tweeze that out from the nausea effect.

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  3. As a kid I was underweight, and as a 20-year-old, I weighed 135 lbs (at 5’6″). Then I married an abusive man and by the time I left a year later had gained 50 lbs. Over my lifetime – I’m 61 now – I’ve gained about 50 lbs each time a traumatic event happened – parents’ death, failed relationship, 2nd abusive marriage, so I’m now at about 350 lbs. About a year after each trauma, I would plateau, then stay there for a number of years, until the next one. A few times I managed to lose up to 60 lbs, but then regained. Two years ago, I had 2 medical emergencies when I nearly died, within 6 months of each other. However I have managed to still stay at that 350 lbs, which I’ve been at for about 10 years. I now realize that I can consider that a success.

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  4. I remember consciously forcing myself to eat after I was raped. I felt I HAD to put on weight as protection. Protection on many levels (1) as a physical barrier (2) as a protection because my skewed and “wrong” thinking led me to the mistaken belief that if I was fat/unsexy/unattractive then I’d be safe from another sexual predator (3) for comfort, like wearing a big huggy sweater insulating me.
    Even though that was almost 30 years ago some of that need for security still remains but i treated the skewed thoughts with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Rape Crisis counselling and treated my body to healthy foods and to years of organized, serious, healthy, well paced, athletic ventures. Current illnesses have resulted in a loss of athleticism and here I am back in a huge body once again! Sigh!
    (I certainly had the genetic propensity for obesity so that was my path. I suppose if I had a family history of drug or alcohol use I might have ended up there? who knows?)

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  5. Wow, that PTSD – weight gain relationship really struck a nerve with me! I had brain surgery 2 months ago (full craniotomy to remove a tumor). I’ve been having a terrible time with insomnia, major anxiety, replaying every piece of the experience over and over in my head, and really just obsessing over each detail despite the fact that I’d really like to be able to forget about it and move on. I seem to be fixated on what happened in the OR – at least the parts I remember. I don’t know how to turn the record off. Before the surgery, I was thin (maybe too thin) and overly pre-occupied with healthy eating. But since I got home, I’ve been eating all the worst foods that I NEVER would have touched in the past… all carbs, sugar, baked goods. I don’t know where my self-control went or why my food preferences have changed so dramatically. I feel like a completely different person. Not surprisingly, I’ve gained 20 lbs. Last week my psychiatrist diagnosed me with PTSD so it is particularly intriguing to me that a link has been established.

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  6. Hi everyone
    I am an obesity researcher based in Sweden. There is (finally) so much more research coming concerning adverse life experiences and weight gain (Arya, please continue posting on this and I will buy you free drinks in Boston next year).

    We are also starting to understand why such experiences contribute to weight gain, including emotional eating, depression, anxiety, chronically elevated stress levels, disturbed sleeping patterns, reduced thermogenesis, reduced fat oxidation, increased inflammation, and much more.

    Obviously, diet and other lifestyle factors contribute hugely to the epidemic, but there is much more going on, ie psychoemotional factors and stress. So please keep sharing your stories, this is very important and will help to lift the awareness of such factors to policy makers, researchers, clinicians, patient groups, etc.

    Personally, I would seek counseling for underlying trauma/PTSD before I embarked on a weight loss program. Who knows, once you have successfully dealt with past trauma (and this is certainly very much possible), you may find that you no longer need the weight loss program.

    All best from Stockholm,

    Erik Hemmingsson, Obesity Center at Karolinska University Hospital

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  7. Hemminsgsson – all of the other factors completely ring true! Interesting. Thank you for posting.

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  8. My PTSD is related to childhood emotional neglect and abandonment. I’ve struggled with body image issues and weight gain. Here’s the great news! I’ve been undergoing psychotherapy for several years and now I’m losing weight without trying. I’m getting rid of negative assumptions about myself and I swear my physical body is getting stronger (without exercise or diet). The world has NEVER looked and FELT so good! Its lasting change that diet programs couldn’t effect.

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  9. Hi, I just can across your article, and am wondering if you might be able to give me some direction. My daughter suffers from PTSD as a result of sexual abuse at the hands of my x-husband. Her weight has increasingly crept up…I notice weight gain every time there is another hearing or anything to do with the trial. She is a varsity athlete (LOTS of exercise) and we are healthy eaters. The weight gain is now an issue with her achieving her athletic goals (she is being told by coaches she needs to lose weight). Suggestions?

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    • Sorry to hear about your daughter – she will probably benefit from psychological counselling.

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  10. I know this is an old article, but has anyone found a way to lose the weight with PTSD? In my experience what works for others to lose weight doesn’t work the same for us.

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