In 1985, Dr. Vincent Felitti, then chief of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego, was mystified by the fact that many of his most successful patients were unable to
maintain their weight loss. Later, through a pioneering study (the Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACE Study) with a colleague, he found that many of his patients had suffered sexual abuse,
along with other toxic stressors in their childhood.
There are many reasons why sexual, physical and emotional abuse can lead to overeating. Here are just a few of them:
People learn at an early age to numb out feelings of fear, anger and helplessness by eating. Food is an option that is always available to help us take control of feelings and experience pleasure. It is one thing that we can control when everything else seems to be out of control.
Childhood abuse can set up our nervous system to be in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze. Substances such as food can help calm us down and soothe our feelings.
Survivors of sexual abuse often have strong inner critics and are overly hard on themselves. This can lead to restrictive dieting and “all-or-nothing” thinking, which triggers even more shame and creates a destructive cycle.
Extra weight can feel like a protection from the world. Sometimes when people lose weight and start attracting attention to themselves, vulnerable feelings arise that can then trigger emotional eating.
Detachment From the Body
People often mentally leave their body to escape abuse. This can be a lifesaving thing to do at the time, but staying disconnected from the body prevents us from sensing our feelings and lovingly taking care of ourselves.