You are here

Fat Thoughts Can Make You Fat


I think we all have “fat days.” Whether triggered by PMS or just having a bad day, sometimes living in sweat pants and avoiding human contact feels like the best way to make it through the day. But now, new Norwegian research, finds that feeling fat can actually lead to becoming fat.

In the study, scientists assessed the perceived and actual weights of teenagers, then tracked them for about a decade. As adults, about half were still normal weight, but among those who were overweight there was a unique difference. Of the girls who felt fat as teens nearly 60 percent became overweight as adults, and 78 percent had excess waist circumferences. On the flip side, of the girls who didn’t consider themselves to be fat as teens just 31 percent were found to be overweight as adults, and 55 percent had high waist measurements.

The researchers also found that being physically active didn’t negate the impact of poor body image on weight gain. And normal weight girls were more likely than boys to think of themselves as fat—22 percent of the normal weight girls rated themselves as overweight compared to just nine percent of the boys.

While it’s not clear exactly what led to the weight differences it’s an interesting study, and not the first to connect body image to weight (check out my previous post about the body image weight loss connection). Clearly the message here is that, at any age, fostering a healthy body image is important for both emotional and physical well being; and feeling good in your own skin is much more likely to lead to a healthy balanced relationship with food.

So what can you do to boost your body image? Here are two key strategies. I know that both are easier said than done, but in my years of working with clients one-on-one and leading body image groups, I’ve found them to be quite powerful:

Strive to eliminate negative self-talk. Do you talk to yourself the way you’d talk to your best friend? When I ask my clients this question most say no. In fact, they wouldn’t dream of saying the things they say to themselves to someone they really care about. If you’re in the same boat, commit to treating yourself and talking to yourself with love and respect, rather than judging, berating, and beating yourself up. And if you catch yourself being nasty, apologize.

Focus on taking care of your body rather than manipulating it. Using positive self talk is important, but actions do speak louder than words, so take care of yourself like you’d take care of your best friend. If you were responsible for feeding the person you care about most you wouldn’t starve her or force her to overeat until she’s stuffed, right? If you have a tough time applying that concept to yourself, think of your body as a construction site. Every day you need raw materials from food to maintain, heal, repair, and fuel your body. If the fuel delivery is shy, jobs don’t get done and your body suffers. And when too much shows up, you wind up with a surplus, which also creates unwanted side effects. In other words, balance and quality are key, so it’s all about focusing on eating in a way that results in the best possible you—inside and out. When you reframe your relationship with food in this way, it can help you see that undereating and overeating both backfire, but eating healthy, balanced, nutrient rich, clean foods feels fantastic. And when you do that consistently you’ll achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

What’s your take on this topic? Do you find that when you’re down on your body you feel less motivated to eat healthfully? Or do you turn to food as a way to escape or stuff down your feelings? Please share your thoughts @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine.

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.