Could Poor Body Image Block Weight Loss?

Body image tied to weight loss and mental health

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

“I’ve just gotten so fat!” “You? I’m the one with the huge thighs!” -- It is not uncommon to hear conversations like this, especially as the anxiety of swimsuit season quickly approaches. But new research is showing that this habit and mentality might not just be detrimental to self-esteem, but could affect one’s ability to lose weight.

“Fat Talk” and Its Mental Harms

In new University of Arizona study the potential results of self-deprecating comments like those mentioned above, particularly as made by women, were explored through two studies.

The authors, Analisa Arroyo and Jake Harwood, PhD, qualify “fat talk” as “the ritualistic conversations about one's own and others' bodies.” This talk can include matters like what diet and exercise habits should be, how these habits compare to those of others, fears about gaining weight, shape and weight of other’s bodies and one’s own and comments about meal replacements and diet supplements.

In the study, 168 college students were followed in self-reporting surveys exploring how body satisfaction and perceived cultural pressures might be both causes and consequences of this fat talk.

Statements like “I’m satisfied with the way I look” and “I feel pressure to be thin” were rated on a range and compared with measurements exploring mental health, self-esteem and depression, along with a daily measure of frequency of fat talk.

Results showed that low self-esteem and low satisfaction with one’s body’s significantly predicted verbalizing more fat talk among the participants. Those who made the most fat talk comments showed higher levels of depression and perceived cultural pressure to be thin, hinting that “verbally expressing discontent with one's own body has negative effects for one's own mental health and body image.”

Simply hearing fat talk comments from others did not seem to effect the personal self-esteem or body satisfaction of participants.

According to Arroyo and Harwood, “Fat talk mediates the connection between negative body cognitions and mental health issues. Overall, our results demonstrate a variety of dynamic connections between fat talk, concerns about one's body, and negative mental health issues. “

The Body Image and Weight Loss Connection

So if “fat talk” lowers body satisfaction, how is body satisfaction related to weight gain?

A July 2011 study out of the Technical University of Lisbon and Bangor University examined this connection between body image and weight management by testing the role of improved body image on eating self-regulation.

The research followed 239 overweight women aged 25-50 as they participated in a year of weight loss training. The control group was given traditional health information regarding weight loss - creating healthy eating and exercise habits, controlling stress, understanding nutrition; while the intervention group explored body image through weekly group meetings covering topics like emotional eating, identifying personal barriers to weight-loss and decreasing over-preoccupation with physical appearance.

Although both groups benefited from the weight-loss programs, the body image intervention group saw significantly stronger results. The group showed marked improvement in feelings about their body and a reduction in preoccupation and concerns with weight and appearance. Furthermore, those who were trained on improving body image lost an average of 7% of their starting weight, while the control group lost less than 2% of their starting weight.

According to leading researcher Pedro Teixeira, PhD, "Our results showed a strong correlation between improvements in body image, especially in reducing anxiety about other peoples' opinions, and positive changes in eating behavior. From this we believe that learning to relate to your body in healthier ways is an important aspect of maintaining weight loss and should be addressed in every weight control program."

Improve Body Image Through Simple Steps

The results of these studies are sure to affect how weight loss programs worldwide operate. Potential changes could be made in these programs to first address body image, self-esteem and the negative verbal habits that often go along with issues in this area before addressing physical weight loss. Since a connection seems to have been shown between both self-disparaging comments and body image, and body image and weight loss, a method for anyone who is trying to manage their weight could be to cut down on negative comments about their own physical appearance.

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), which provides a wealth of knowledge on improving body image, says that to improve body perception, you should take time to appreciate all the things your body can do - running, breathing, dancing, even laughing.

NEDA suggests wearing comfortable clothes that make you feel attractive, keeping a list of ten things you like about yourself and spending time helping others as ways to improve your relationship with your body. While further research is needed to indisputably prove a link between these internal feelings and successful weight loss, it is hard to imagine a negative outcome of experiencing improved body image. 

Review Date: 
May 3, 2012