New research provides evidence that people who grew up in an unstable environment are more susceptible to food addiction. 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 characterized by a lack of control, unsuccessful attempts to eat less, and continuing to overeat despite negative consequences.
“Considering the deleterious consequences of food addiction (e.g., obesity and depression), the risk factors leading to adults’ food addiction warrant examination,” said study author Hope Zhou, a PhD student at the University of Macau.
“Understanding the psychological mechanism of food addiction from the perspective of life history may help evaluate and decrease one’s risks for food addiction. 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 maximize 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 characterized 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 characterized 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 had 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 lowing one’s risk for food addiction,” Zhou told PsyPost.
Interestingly, greater self-kindness (e.g., “I try to be understanding and patient towards those aspects of my personality I don’t like”) did not help explain the relationship between slow life history strategies and lower levels of food addiction.
“Only self-judgment, rather than self-kindness, plays a significant mediating role in the relationship between slow life history and food addiction,” Zhou explained. “It seems that self-judgment has a more salient role in such an association. Future studies are also warranted to investigate whether the result can be replicated across ages, socioeconomic status, and cultures.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats. Since the study relied on correlational data, the researchers cannot make causal claims or draw definitive conclusions about cause and effect.
“The study is not an experimental study and the potential causal relation is yet to be established,” Zhou said. “It may be challenging, if not impossible, to control life history strategy.” Instead, “we may consider studying the effect of self-judgment. We hope that the findings can eventually provide insights into interventions.”
The study, “Childhood environment and adulthood food addiction: Testing the multiple mediations of life history strategies and attitudes toward self“, was authored by Hui Zhou, Anise M.S. Wu, Xiaoyu Su, Lei Chang, Juliet Honglei Chen, Meng Xuan Zhang, and Kwok Kit Tong.