Children who grow up in unstable environments are more prone to food addiction: study
The Sector > Research > Children who grow up in unstable environments are more prone to food addiction: study

Children who grow up in unstable environments are more prone to food addiction: study

by Freya Lucas

March 13, 2023

People who grow up in an unstable environment are more susceptible to food addiction, new research from the University of Macau has found. 


The findings, published in the journal Appetite, indicate that unpredictability in one’s earlier stages of life is associated with maladaptive patterns of food intake.


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


Considering the high impact that the consequences of food addiction can have later in life, such as obesity and subsequent comorbidities, the risk factors which lead to food addiction warrant examination, author and PhD student Hope Zhou said. 


“Understanding the psychological mechanism of food addiction from the perspective of life history may help evaluate and decrease one’s risks for food addiction,” Ms Zhou said. 


“These results may yield 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 over their lifetime in order to maximise their reproductive success. The theory holds that one’s early life environment shapes internal strategies of how to allocate energy and resources.


Fast life history strategies in humans are characterised by early sexual activity, high risk-taking behavior, and impulsivity, along with short-term relationships, low investment in parenting, and a focus on immediate 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 may be more likely to adopt fast life history strategies as a way to navigate through their difficult circumstances.


Slow life history strategies, on the other hand, are characterised by delayed gratification, investment 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, as they have access to the resources they need to invest in their long-term goals and relationships.


While some research has shown a link between childhood trauma and food addiction, there has until now been no investigation into the potential connection between food addiction and childhood unpredictability.


The new study was conducted as part of a larger study of Macao Chinese residents who completed phone 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 childhood unpredictability were directly associated with higher levels of food addiction. Higher levels of childhood unpredictability were associated with fast life history strategies. Fast life history strategies, in turn, were associated with higher levels of food addiction.


In addition, the researchers found that slow life history strategies were associated with reduced self-judgment, which in turn was associated with lower levels of food addiction. People with low levels of self-judgement disagreed with statements such as “I’m disapproving and judgmental about my own flaws and inadequacies.”


“Although unpredictable childhood, fast life history strategies, and self-judgment contribute to food addiction development, the self-judgment reduction can be considered as a potential supplementary approach for lowering one’s risk for food addiction,” Ms Zhou said.


“The study is not an experimental study and the potential causal relation is yet to be established,” she added. 


Access “Childhood environment and adulthood food addiction: Testing the multiple mediations of life history strategies and attitudes toward self“, using the link provided. 

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