Recognizing the relationship between adversity, chronic disease, and nutritional health is an important topic and something I am currently working on and learning in my doctorate of clinical nutrition program this fall 2022 semester.
Physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening events can have lasting adverse effects on an individual’s health and well-being, including their relationship with food and their risk of developing chronic disease. There are three subsets of trauma as follows:
Historical trauma results from multi-generational trauma experienced by specific cultural or racial/ethnic groups. It is related to major oppressive events such as slavery, the Holocaust, forced migration, and the violent colonization of indigenous people.
Systemic trauma refers to the contextual features of environments and institutions that give rise to trauma, maintain it, and impact post-traumatic responses.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic childhood events, such as abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction (i.e., untreated mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, incarceration, family separation, or divorce) and other forms of adversity (i.e., bullying, natural disasters and wars, poverty, discrimination, infectious disease, and child welfare involvement) that can result in toxic stress. Prolonged exposure to ACEs can create a toxic stress response, damaging the developing brain and body of children, affecting overall health, and causing long-term health problems.
THE IMPACT OF TRAUMA
Exposure to ACEs can drastically increase the risk of:
Heart disease (i.e., hypertension, atherosclerosis (clogged arteries), CVD)
Chronic Obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
There are also health risk behaviors and socioeconomic challenges.
Health risk behaviors
Less than a High School Education
No Health Insurance
ACEs are common- 6 in 10 people have had at least one ACE experience, and 1 in 6 have experienced four or more ACEs (CDC Vital Signs, 2019).
Some populations are at a greater risk than others. Women and several racial/ethnic minority groups are at a greater risk of having experienced four or more ACEs. Another group is food-insecure families at a greater risk of experiencing multiple ACEs or other forms of trauma.
WHY TRAUMA-INFORMED NUTRITION
Trauma and adversity can disrupt biology and exacerbate an unhealthy relationship with food, leading to poor nutritional health. The relationship between food, individuals, families, and communities must be treated with compassion and a holistic perspective that acknowledges individual, historical, and systemic trauma.
Experiences Dietary Behaviors That May Result from Adversity
Unreliable and/or unpredictable meals
Hoarding food, binge eating, or compulsive overeating
Restriction and control over food
High sugar, and/or salt diets
Reliance on convenience foods
Loss of food traditions
Eating disorders or food addiction
Manipulation, punishment, or reward with food
Decision-making to meet short-term rather than long-term.
Shame, bias, or stigma when utilizing food assistance term needs
Untrustworthy or inadequate nutritional support, plus a lack of planning and budgeting
WHAT IS TRAUMA-INFORMED NUTRITION?
Trauma-informed nutrition acknowledges the role ACEs and other adversity play in a person’s life, recognizes trauma symptoms, and promotes resilience. A trauma-informed approach is characterized by an understanding that unhealthy dietary habits, chronic disease, and poor health outcomes may result from adverse experiences and not individual choices. It, therefore, aims to avoid shaming, stigma, and blame. Trauma-informed nutrition supports an integrative and functional approach to nutritional health that highlights six "Components of Care which are:
Supportive relationships/ concrete support systems
Quality of Sleep
HOW TO APPLY A TRAUMA-INFORMED APPROACH TO NUTRITION PROGRAMS
Acknowledge historical and systemic trauma
Acknowledge the strengths and skills of clients
Focus on holistic well-being rather than obesity and BMI
Inspire healing and a healthy relationship with food
Refrain from overemphasizing personal behavior change
Reduce shame, anxiety, confusion, and tension
Recognize some nutrition interventions may be triggering
Practice cultural humility
Identify the willingness or ability of clients to adopt new behaviors
Address conscious and/or unconscious bias
On a Trauma-Informed Nutrition Program Clients Experience:
Safety & Security- environments that consistently support stress de-escalation, healthy choices, and wellness practices.
Trustworthiness & Transparency- staff- that are well-trained to deliver trauma-informed services.
Cultural, Historical, & Gender Issues- culturally- responsive interactions and experiences.
Empowerment, Voice, & Choice- opportunities to practice and grow tangible skills for self-efficacy.