The Recovery Room: Sexual Abuse and Obesity

What's The Link?


Adapted from our friends at the Obesity Action Coalition— an article by JoAnn Stevelos, MS, MPH, and Candace White, MEd, MS

A simple understanding of childhood obesity would be this: It’s a biological response to overeating and lack of physical activity. However, we are learning that childhood obesity is a complex disease brought on by a multitude of societal problems, but little attention has been given to the link between childhood obesity and sexual abuse.

The Link Between Child Sexual Abuse and Obesity

One explanation for weight gain in those with a history of child sexual abuse is binge eating disorder (BED). BED is at least six times more common in obese people and three to four times more common in obese people who report a history of childhood sexual abuse. The effects of child sexual abuse (poor self-esteem, poor body image, impulsive behavior and drug abuse) are common predictors of the binge eating and obesity. That is, compulsive eating may be one way to manage the depression related to child sexual abuse.

Other factors in the connection between child sexual abuse and obesity, along with eating disorders, might include a desire to “de-sexualize” to protect against further abuse, as well as a range of psychiatric conditions (depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, physical complaints, phobic reactions, low self-esteem, suicidal feelings and substance abuse).


The treatment of obesity remains difficult and the success of weight-loss programs is limited. Clinical obesity interventions need to address the possible coexisting psychiatric problems that might require treatment before any attempts at weight loss.

Clinicians treating children for obesity need to be aware of the link between obesity and child sexual abuse to respond and care most effectively for these children. It is important to remember that both are treatable under the care of informed and trained professionals.

Reprinted with permission from the Obesity Action Coalition,