Could you have greater weight loss success if you felt better in your own skin today? Absolutely. In my private practice I find that clients with poor body image tend to struggle more with emotional and binge eating, and when a client’s self-esteem is closely tied to her weight or size, she generally feels less confident about her ability to lose weight healthfully. Transforming your relationship with your body doesn’t happen overnight, but in my experience actively working to improve your body image can play a major role in your ability to lose weight and keep it off.
In a new study published in the International Journal of Obesity researchers discovered that the less satisfied a young girl is with her body, the more likely she is to gain weight and develop a pattern of binge eating. Scientists tracked over 1,500 overweight and obese girls for more than 10 years. At the start, 57 percent reported being somewhat satisfied with their bodies. Over time that number fell to 47 percent and after a decade the percentage of girls who engaged in weekly binge eating rose from less than 2 percent to nearly 10 percent.
In another recent University of Arizona study, scientists found that body dissatisfaction was tied to a greater risk of disordered eating, but several factors were shown to boost positive body image. Among over 300 college women from two US universities, those with strong family support who felt less pressure from family, friends, and the media to be ‘thin and beautiful’ had healthier body images. These women were also found to have strong stress management skills and didn’t feel they needed to be ‘superwomen.’
You may not be able to change the attitudes of your friends, family, or the media but there are concrete strategies that can help you improve the way you perceive your body:
Analyze your self-talk
Do you talk to yourself like you would talk to your best friend? Facing your internal dialogue is important because even unspoken thoughts deeply affect how you feel. Negative self-talk leads to negative emotions, which can trigger you to cope in an unhealthy way like starving yourself, over exercising, or binge eating. Start talking to yourself (even in your head) in ways that are caring, self-nurturing, and reflect how you’d talk to the people you love most.
Focus on how your body feels rather than your weight or size
This doesn’t have to mean giving up on your weight loss goals but prioritizing taking care of yourself from the inside out. That means eating healthfully, moving, and getting enough sleep because these habits make you feel great physically and emotionally. Weight loss approaches that don’t make you feel good will always fizzle while the opposite is also true. Focusing on feeling good can help you stay on track consistently, not out of “willpower” but because it feels good to feel good!
Acknowledge what you’re grateful for
Make a list of at least five things you’re grateful your body can do that have nothing to do with looks. The other day I was grateful that my body is strong enough to carry groceries 15 blocks from Whole Foods to my apartment. I’m also grateful that my body allows me to laugh, dance, hug the people I love, and cuddle my pets. Once you get going you may be surprised just how many things you come up with! Stash your list somewhere handy. When you experience a negative thought, maybe about what you don’t like about your body, re-read your list. It can really help bring some perspective.
Find an activity you love regardless of how many calories it burns
To me hiking feels like an adventure and I look forward to it for reasons that have nothing to with fitness. Maybe you feel this way about swimming, yoga, or Zumba. When you’re engaged in a physical activity you enjoy, not because it’s going to shrink your fat cells or sculpt your muscles, but because it feels like pure pleasure, it can significantly boost your self-image.
Negative body image is an issue we all struggle with sometimes, including me. But when I start focusing on my flaws I have to remind myself that the people I find most attractive are those who radiate confidence, warmth, health, and kindness, not the ones who look perfect.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.