Healthy Body Image, Healthy Food Choices

Mar 13, 2008

Women who accept their bodies the way they are seem to be more likely to follow principles of healthy eating, new research shows. The findings suggest that women’s typical reasons for changing their diet—a dissatisfaction with their bodies—may backfire, said Tracy Tylka, co-author of the studies and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University’s Marion campus.

“The message that women often hear is that some degree of body dissatisfaction is healthy because it could help them strive to take care of their bodies,” Tylka said. “But it may be just the opposite: an appreciation of your body is needed to really adopt better eating habits.”

Tylka and her colleagues conducted several studies on a concept called “intuitive eating,” which is eating based on feelings of hunger and fullness rather than on emotions or situations. They presented their results in two related poster sessions at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. The studies were published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology.

The focus on intuitive eating is an attempt to find out what constitutes healthy eating, rather than the more prevalent focus in psychology on eating disorders, Tylka said. Other researchers have determined that intuitive eating has three components: unconditional permission to eat when hungry and to eat what food you desire; eating for physical rather than emotional reasons; and reliance on internal hunger and fullness cues to determine when and how much to eat.

While parts of intuitive eating are non-controversial, Tylka said many people can’t believe people should be able to eat when they want, and whatever foods they want. “There’s this belief that if you give people unconditional permission to eat, they are going to binge and add on a lot of pounds. But that’s not what we have found,” Tylka said.

In a study of 199 college women, published in April 2007 in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, Tylka found that those who followed intuitive eating principles actually had a slightly lower body mass index (BMI) than women who did not. “It seems amazing, but it is true. If you listen to your body signals in determining what, when, and how much to eat, you are not going to binge and you’re going to eat an appropriate amounts of nutrient-dense foods,” she said.

In the new studies presented at the APA, Tylka and her colleagues examined who was most likely to follow intuitive eating and the psychological impacts that doing so had on them. In two samples of college women (597 all together), Tylka and Ohio State graduate student Laura Avalos found that women who reported they were intuitive eaters also reported higher levels of appreciation for their own body. They were more likely to agree with statements like “Despite its flaws, I accept my body for what it is.” They were less likely to spend a lot of time thinking about how their body appears to others, and more time considering how their body feels and functions.

Results showed that these intuitive eaters felt more unconditional acceptance of their bodies by parents and others when they were growing up, and felt that those around them now accepted their bodies for what they were. “When women feel that the people in their life accept their body, they don’t feel like they need to lose weight or tone up to be worthwhile,” Tylka said. “That seems to be directly related to eating intuitively.”

While her research has shown eating intuitively is associated with a lower BMI, Tylka said that doesn’t mean all women who follow these principles will match the thin models they see in the media. “There are going to be a variety of body types. For most people, their ideal body type will hover around the range that doctors say is healthy. But some will be healthy at a higher weight, and others at a lower weight.”

But a lower BMI isn’t the only way that intuitive eating can contribute to well-being. In the second study presented at the APA, two samples of college women (737 total women) were tested by Tylka and Ohio State graduate student Jennifer Wilcox. Those who scored higher on measures of intuitive eating also showed higher levels of self-esteem, coping ability, optimism, and ability to deal with stressful situations. “Healthy eating is associated with psychological well-being in a lot of different ways,” Tylka said, adding that this research shows that healthy, adaptive eating is more than just avoiding the habits that lead to eating disorders. “By teaching intuitive eating, we can help people learn how to eat adaptively, and not just tell them what not to do and what to avoid.”

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