Unpredictable childhood environments associated with food addiction in adulthood

New research provides evidence that people who grew up in an unstable environment are more prone to food addiction. The findings, published in the journal Pullindicate that unpredictability in one’s earlier life stages is associated with maladaptive patterns of food intake.

Food addiction is a term used to describe a problematic pattern of food intake characterized by a lack of control, failed attempts to eat less, and continuing to overeat despite the negative consequences.

“Given the harmful consequences of food addiction (e.g., obesity and depression), the risk factors leading to food addiction in adults warrant investigation,” said study co-author Hope Zhou, a doctoral student at the University of Macau.

“Understanding the psychological mechanism of food addiction from a life history perspective can help evaluate and reduce a person’s risks of food addiction. These results may provide a theoretical framework for the development of food addiction and practical insights for future food addiction intervention programs.”

The new study was based on life history theory, which seeks to explain how organisms allocate resources throughout their lives to maximize their reproductive success. The theory states that a person’s early life environment shapes internal strategies for allocating energy and resources.

Rapid life history strategies in humans are characterized by early sexual activity, risky behavior, and impulsiveness, along with short-term relationships, low investment in parenting, and a focus on instant gratification.

Fast life history strategies are more likely to be favored in harsh and unpredictable environments. For example, children who grow up in poverty or in unstable family environments are more likely to adopt quick life history strategies as a way to navigate their difficult circumstances.

Slow life history strategies, on the other hand, are characterized by delayed gratification, investments in education and career development, and a focus on long-term goals and relationships. Children who grow up in supportive and nurturing environments are more likely to adopt this strategy because they have access to the resources they need to invest in their long-term goals and relationships.

While some studies have shown a link between childhood trauma and food addiction, no research had investigated the possible link between food addiction and childhood unpredictability.

The new research was conducted as part of a larger survey of Macau Chinese residents who conducted telephone interviews between November 2021 and January 2022. The study included data from 1,010 participants, who completed the Chinese version of the Modified Yale Food Addiction Scale 2.0 along with assessments. of childhood unpredictability, life history strategies, and self-compassion.

The researchers found that higher levels of unpredictability in children were directly related to higher levels of food addiction. Higher levels of childhood unpredictability were associated with rapid life history strategies. Rapid life history strategies, in turn, were associated with higher levels of food addiction.

In addition, the researchers found that slow life strategies were associated with reduced self-judgment, which in turn was associated with lower rates of food addiction. People with low self-esteem do not agree with with statements such as “I am disapproving and judgmental of my own flaws and shortcomings.”

“While unpredictable childhood, rapid life history strategies and self-judgment contribute to the development of food addiction, the reduction in self-judgment can be considered as a possible additional approach to lowering one’s risk of food addiction,” Zhou told PsyPost.

Interestingly, greater self-kindness (e.g., “I try to be understanding and patient with those aspects of my personality that I dislike”) did not help explain the relationship between sluggish life-history strategies and lower levels of food addiction.

“Self-judgment alone, rather than self-kindness, plays an important mediating role in the relationship between slow life history and food addiction,” Zhou explained. “It seems that self-judgment plays a more prominent role in such an association. Future studies are also warranted to explore whether the result can be replicated across ages, socioeconomic status and cultures.”

But the study, like all studies, has some caveats. Because the study relied on correlation data, the researchers cannot make causative claims or draw definitive conclusions about cause and effect.

“The study is not an experimental study and the possible causal relationship has yet to be determined,” Zhou said. “It can be challenging, if not impossible, to master life history strategy.” Instead, we might consider studying the effect of self-judgment. We hope that the findings can ultimately provide insights for interventions.”

The study, “Childhood Environment and Adult Food Addiction: Testing the Multiple Mediations of Life History Strategies and Self-Attitudes,” was authored by Hui Zhou, Anise MS Wu, Xiaoyu Su, Lei Chang, Juliet Honglei Chen, Meng Xuan Zhang, and Kwok Kit Tongue.

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