Research Reviews

Research Review: Improve body image, improve your body

by Helen Kollias

Paradoxical as it sounds, new research shows that a better body image could actually help you lose more body weight.  In other words, accepting your body as it is and spending less time thinking about it is the best way to live a leaner, healthier lifestyle.

Introduction

We’re bombarded with images of unattainable, unrealistic, and unhealthy beauty. Start with an average model, who has a BMI of 16.5. Add lots of computer software and hours of editing. You end up with a distorted, imaginary, arguably non-human view of what purports to be a “normal” and beautiful body.

For some perspective, at my height of 5’8″ (173 cm), I would have to weigh 107.5 lb to have a BMI of 16.5. Since my normal weight is about 140 lb, I would have to lose all my body fat plus nearly 10 pounds of lean body tissue.

Then of course, I’d be airbrushed into oblivion. (To get an idea what is possible with digital enhancement, take a look at a weight loss session done with Adobe Photoshop software).

But here’s the paradox. Bizarrely, impossibly thin images are all around us. Yet more people are overweight and obese than ever before. Seems odd. You’d think that having more pressure would push people into the direction of losing weight, but the opposite is happening instead. Why?

Being a biologist I like to think that biology matters and can explain things more than, say, squishy things like feelings and perceptions. So I might have argued that weight loss was simply energy in (food) versus energy out (movement).

Looks like us geeks might have been a little simplistic.

In this week’s research review, we see that for people struggling with their weight, how they see their body is just as important as — if not more important than — the biology of their body.

Body image: evaluation and investment

We all went through an awkward stage as a teenagers. Heck, you may still be in an awkward stage 30 years later.

Looking in the mirror or fretting over a picture. Is that what I really look like?! The horror! If I could just lose/gain x pounds, lift this, and tuck that, THEN I would be happy. You know the drill.

Body image is how we perceive our physical appearance — good or bad — as well as how important your body perceptions are to you.  Body image is separated into two parts (aka attitudinal dimensions):

1. Evaluative body image: How you think and feel you look, as well as how happy you are with your body. This is your cognitive appraisal and associated emotions (aka what you think or feel). It doesn’t necessarily mean this is reality.

2. Body image investment: How important body image is to you and how much body image affects your daily life. Being preoccupied with the way your body looks (body concern) is a hallmark of dysfunctional body image investment. Another part of body image investment is social physique anxiety, which makes you anxious in social settings and during interactions with others because you feel that others are judging your body.

So, you might not like your body much (evaluation) but not really care an awful lot (investment). This might mean you treat your body like an ugly but necessary inconvenience, like having to clean out the cat’s litter box. Gross, but what are ya gonna do, you think.

Or, you might think you look great (evaluation) and find that greatness really, really important as well (investment), which might mean that you spend a lot of time being afraid of losing that hot bod.

Of course, many of us have the worst of both worlds. We don’t like our bodies, and because we’re so invested in body image, our perceived-grotesque physiques make us want to hide under a rock.

Whether evaluation and/or investment, we tend to think of “body image” as something that happens inside our head. But could it affect our actual bodies?

What role does body image play in weight loss?

In this week’s review, I look at whether improving body image may help women lose weight over a year-long behavior change program.

Carraça EV, Silva MN, Markland D, Vieira PN, Minderico CS, Sardinha LB, Teixeira PJ. Body image change and improved eating self-regulation in a weight management intervention in women. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2011 Jul 18;8:75.

Methods

A group of obese women went through a year-long weight loss program that focused on behavior changes.

You may be thinking, Well aren’t all weight loss programs behavior changes? Yes, but this one focused on self-regulation of eating (with an approach known as self-determination theory) rather than calorie counting or specific meal plans.

Our own Lean Eating program at PN focuses on eating self-regulation, which bothers some people who may be expecting a auto-pilot type of approach. What — I don’t get a list of meals? Or a meal plan to follow? You mean I have to pay attention to how my body feels and I have to make decisions!?

Now, I get that it’s often easier to let other people make decisions for you. However, the advantage of self-regulated eating is that mindful, voluntary and self-directed eating is more sustainable long-term, while fostering independence. You learn the skills you need to eat better… for life… without someone else looking over your shoulder.

Scary at first, but a lot more sustainable and useful. (Trust us. We’ve helped thousands of clients.)

Self-regulation

Several factors guide self-regulation of eating:

  • confidence that you can do it (eating self-efficacy);
  • consciously controlled eating that isn’t too rigid (highly flexible cognitive restraint);
  • less emotional eating; less eating triggered by specific situations; and less eating because of habits (reduced disinhibition including emotional, situational and habitual cues); and
  • less perceived hunger.

The women also increased their level of physical activity, but as with the eating, there were no specific prescriptions for what to do each day.

Body image sessions

Half the women also went to body image enhancement sessions to improve their body acceptance and satisfaction (evaluative body image) and decrease their over-preoccupation with appearance (investment in body image).

Exercises to improve body acceptance and evaluation included:

  • looking at a mirror and systematically looking at body parts;
  • making realistic goals and expectations for their bodies; and
  • creating a realistic ideal body based on their parents’ weight history and their body type.

Exercises to improve investment in appearance included:

  • understanding body image;
  • finding the cause of the disorder (what situations — social and personal — triggered dysfunction?);
  • keeping a diary to record negative self-talk and the feelings it causes;
  • helping the women to cope with prejudice;
  • helping the women let go of the belief they need to look different in order to be happy.

How do you measure body image?

You might be wondering how you measure body image and the different parts that make it up. There are a series of questionnaires and scales to indicate someone’s body image.

For evaluative body image, one of the more interesting and easy scales to use and understand is the figure rating scale (Figure 1). This provides a series of body outlines numbered 1 (very thin) to 9 (very heavy).

Participants pick the number they think fits their actual body size, and then they pick the number that represents their ideal body size. The bigger the difference (self-ideal discrepancy) the more body image issues a participant has.

Keep in mind this is perceived body size, not real body size. People may actually be their ideal body size but not think so. If you think you’re a 9 on the scale but you’re really a 1, you’ve definitely got a problem.

Body image investment is assessed using questionnaires that ask things like:

  • How often do you feel fat when taking a bath?
  • How often has your body shape/size kept you from concentrating?
  • How nervous do you feel about your body in social settings?
Figure 1 Figure Rating Scale Research Review: Improve body image, improve your body
Figure 1: Figure Rating Scale. From Bhuiyan et al, 2003.

Results

Improved body image

The body image sessions worked. The women in these sessions improved both evaluative body image and body image investment.

Improved eating self-regulation & weight loss

Improving body image also improved eating self-regulation. With better eating, there was better weight loss.

The body image group lost 7.3% of their body weight, while the control group lost only 1.7% of their body weight.

It makes sense that better eating means more weight loss, but seems odd that a better body image would help weight loss. Wouldn’t you think that people should lose weight first… and then feel better about their bodies?

Not in this case. The group that got care, counseling, and compassion kicked ass. Goes against the drill sergeant/tough love approach, doesn’t it?

Using a mathematical model (partial least squares) the researchers found that changes in body image investment was a little more important for weight loss than body image evaluation. In other words, to lose weight, it’s more important to let go of rigid investment in body size and shape than it is to always feel great about yourself.

(After all, remember our hypothetical people who feel good about their body, but are afraid of losing it? They’re much more likely to rigidly control their eating and exercise, which sets them up for problems like diet rebounds, exercise compulsions, and binge eating later on. Plus, if you’re not as invested in your body image, you realize that small things like day-to-day weight fluctuations aren’t that big a deal.)

Conclusion

You’d think people would be motivated to change if they were unhappy with their body. In fact, the opposite is true: Greater body image dissatisfaction actually hinders weight loss.

You may need a certain amount of dissatisfaction with your current body if you want to change it, but more isn’t better. Pointing out that someone is overweight or obese, or beating up on yourself, doesn’t make you more motivated. Nor does it help you get leaner.

We know this to be true. In Lean Eating, we use an “awesomeness-based coaching” approach. We don’t spend time pointing out your “flaws” or “problem areas” (imaginary or otherwise). We find what’s already awesome about you, right now, no matter what your body looks like… and help you do and feel more of that.

(And just a warning: We have a Five-Pushup Rule in Lean Eating: Self-criticism gets you five pushups. We know that negative self-talk doesn’t do you any good. So we pushup that nasty stuff right outta you.)

This study shows that improving body image helps with weight loss. And it seems that spending less time worrying about how your body looks and how other people may scrutinize your body is a bigger part of the puzzle than how unhappy you are about your body.

Want to lose weight?

  • Stop obsessing about your body. If possible, try to get “outside yourself” — into a bigger world full of activities, experiences, social causes, and other things more interesting than whether you can see your abs.
  • Pursue self-acceptance, self-care and self-compassion… not self-criticism.
  • Pay more attention to what you eat — eat slowly and mindfully.
  • Move your body more.

Simple, but not necessarily easy.

Bottom line

Whether you’re coaching a client or are interesting in losing weight yourself, improving body image can help you lose weight.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, accepting your body as it is and spending less time thinking about your body can improve your weight loss. You still have to eat a little less and move around a little more… but at the very least, you’ll also like yourself at the end of the day.

fit38 Research Review: Improve body image, improve your body

References

Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.

Learn more

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They’re probably better than 90% of the seminars we’ve ever attended on the subjects of exercise and nutrition (and probably better than a few we’ve given ourselves, too).

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