Food, Body Image and Mental Health

Our society has programmed us to believe that eating healthy is the best thing that we can do for our physical and mental health. It’s important to know that that’s only partly true, and that societal body image expectations can lead us to eat in a way that we think is healthy but is really bad for our mental health.

It’s fairly common knowledge that eating nutrient dense food (along with physical activity and sufficient sleep) causes increased energy, higher self-esteem, and overall wellbeing. However, we are very quick to equate our health with our body size or the number on the scale. All bodies are inherently different in shape and size which means that assuming we can tell if someone is healthy or unhealthy based solely on their weight just isn’t true. And more than that, it breeds the idea that all thin people have ideal and healthy bodies and all overweight people have sick and unhealthy bodies, which means that the only way to be healthy is to be thin and lose weight. This, for some people, leads to an entire lifetime of aiming for a goal that is not realistic for their body and using unhealthy methods to do so. So, while we know that certain foods are good for us, we can easily get lost in the quest for weight loss.

Does weight loss work? Research shows that dieting is effective in the short term, but it has never been proven to have a lasting effect on weight. Around 95% of people who start a diet are at the same weight or higher after 5 years. This is not because of a lack of self-control or discipline, but instead based on a misunderstanding of human biology. Our bodies were not designed to let us lose weight easily, unfortunately, because starvation has been a problem for all of human history and we have been biologically primed to avoid it if possible. When we try to maintain a huge calorie deficit, our bodies go into famine mode. This is the same set of biological responses that happen when we are literally starving, and so our bodies do everything they can to slow metabolism and make sure we don’t starve to death.

So, what happens when we focus on becoming skinnier instead of eating for health and happiness? For one, us humans are known to take an extreme approach. Aiming for 1300kcal per day, taking supplements that have laxative effects, and cutting out entire food groups might not sound extreme to the common dieter, but biologically they are. These types of diets are unhealthy but are justified by the goal of weight loss which is always assumed to be healthy. In fact, if you follow one of these and lose weight you will likely be complemented on your achievement. Furthermore, our bodies are great at regulating daily caloric intake by sending us hunger and fullness queues, which unfortunately get tuned out when we are following an externally based diet focused on weight loss instead of one that promotes eating based on nutritional needs, hunger and pleasure. This means that following a strict diet makes us ignore the signals that our bodies send us which are supposed to help us maintain a healthy weight. When we eat for weight loss, we risk developing disordered eating habits and eating disorders (see a list of disordered eating habits below).

By now, if you’re still with me, you might be wondering what to think. We’ve been so programmed to believe that weight loss is one of the main goals in life, and that dieting is the way to do it. As a mental health practitioner, it is easy to see a manifestation of this in many (most) clients. To illustrate the mental toll that food and body image might be taking on you, think about how often you are thinking about food? Is it constantly, all day? Or is it only when you are hungry? As you’ll see below in the is it of disordered eating habits, preoccupation with food is a clear way to tell if you and food have an unhealthy relationship. Biologically, you can’t will yourself to need less energy to survive, and so if you don’t give your body what it needs it will be at the forefront of your mind until you do. Here’s another scenario: picture being invited out for ice cream with a friend. Would you make excuses not to go because of the immense fear of the calories and weight gain? Would you go and indulge and then feel crushing guilt? Would you ‘work off’ the calories in the gym or restrict a future meal to make up for it? All of these are examples of disordered eating.

So, what should you do?

  1. Incorporate nutrient dense food into your day, along with any other foods that you enjoy (yes, ANY foods, even that ice cream). Focus and removing moral value from foods, i.e., thinking that an item is inherently good or bad. Instead, eat what you enjoy and think about adding healthy foods into your diet instead of cutting out all unhealthy foods and replacing them with healthy alternatives.
  2. Learn to trust the biological processes that are keeping you alive by listening to your hunger and fullness queues. If you are hungry, eat. Seriously. Every time that you feel hunger, eat. Maybe reading this brings out feelings of fear, like if you allow yourself to eat, you’ll lose control. You won’t. If your body is telling you that it needs more fuel, listen, and eventually those signals will become clearer and you’ll notice that you have no interest in thinking about or eating food when you aren’t hungry.
  3. Acknowledge any feelings of guilt or fear before, during or after a meal and explore the reasoning. More times than not, a fear of weight gain will be the culprit. Know you can actually eat what you like and maintain a healthy weight, and that restricting food causes you to think about it constantly, which actually causes you to eat MORE, not less.

Emotional signs of disordered eating:

  • Do you spend a lot of your day thinking about weight, food, dieting and calories?
  • Are you preoccupied with your body image, body size, or the number on the scale?
  • Do you limit entire categories of foods and only feel safe eating a small number of foods?
  • Does thinking about food, your body size or exercise take away from your concentration at school or work?
  • Do you sometimes fear social gatherings or eating in public because of the lack of control of the foods available?
  • Do you exercise to burn off food that you have already eaten or in preparation for food that you will eat?
  • Do you weight yourself daily or multiple times a day? Does the number on the scale have the ability to change your mood for long periods of time?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you might be suffering unnecessarily because of skewed body image and poor relationship with food. These disordered eating habits can be unlearned, and it is possible to live a healthy life while maintaining a good relationship with food. If this sounds like you, please feel free to reach out at allison@maritzarodriguezarseneau.com.

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