There’s a growing body of evidence that the way you feel about your body can have a more substantial impact on your health than your actual weight. That’s not to say that being overweight isn’t a problem – but being dissatisfied about your weight could potentially be even more harmful.
Over at Quartz, Harriet Brown cites a series of studies looking at the idea of weight dissatisfaction and its subsequent toll on our health. Take this report from the US, for example, which involved a survey of more than 100 female college students and found a link between a negative body image and a ”generally diminished quality of life”, or this 2014 paper, which found a link between weight dissatisfaction and the eventual onset of type II diabetes.
Back in 2006, researchers found that the problem of body dissatisfaction is growing, particularly among young people, while a 2013 study found that the link between how we feel about our bodies and the healthy activities we engage in isn’t necessarily linked to weight – in other words, this is a problem that can come up irrespective or how little or how much someone weighs, and should really be tackled separately.
It does seem clear that people who feel good about their bodies take better care of them. Both the 2013 study mentioned above and other studies have found that people who are more satisfied with their weight tend to exercise more often, no matter what that weight happens to be. In general, those who are unhappy with their appearance exercise less, put on more weight and are worse at looking after themselves, the research found.
A 2012 paper published in the Journal of Health Psychology found that regular exercise improves our sense of body image, even for people whose body weight and shape don’t change along the way: that adds credence to the hypothesis that how we feel about ourselves (and how well we look after ourselves) isn’t necessarily linked to weight or appearance.
According to Christine Blake from the Arnold School of Health in South Carolina, doctors should focus on helping patients accept their bodies first before focusing on any weight issues (which may lead to stress, self-loathing, and unhealthy behaviour). ”Weight dissatisfaction may actually discourage people from engaging in healthy behaviours,” she told Brown at Quartz. ”They might be less likely to respond to programs that encourage health, saying, ’Ah, forget it.’”
And it’s not just doctors who can help: a 2009 paper looking at adolescents from 24 different countries found strong links between body dissatisfaction and problems with parent-child communication, so there’s a case to be made that feeling good about our bodies starts at home.