Are Body Dissatisfaction and Disordered Eating Key Drivers of Obesities?

Yesterday, at the International School on Obesity Research and Management currently underway at Lake Louise, Alberta, several presenters (Shelley Russell-Mayhew, U Calgary and Claudia Sikorski, U Leipzig) focussed on the role of negative body-image and the stigma of obesities on weight gain in both men and women.

This topic is of substantial interest in light of the growing evidence that obesities often begin with poor self-esteem and negative body-image which may perpetuate overeating.

This issue was further examined by Christie Urquhart and Tanis Mihalynuk from Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, in a paper just published in the Canadian Journal of Dietary Practice and Research.

As the authors note:

“Contemporary Western society emphasizes thinness for women, and the ideal female body size has become progressively smaller over the past half century. Meanwhile, the actual female body size has increased steadily, and rates of aberrant attitudes and behaviours surrounding food and weight have risen and tend to be much more common in overweight individuals. Thus disordered eating and excess body weight may perpetuate each other’s development.”

In their paper, the researchers synthesise the literature on female body size and disordered eating with regard to eight common cognitions and behaviours that occur in women:

  • media exposure
  • weight stereotypes
  • body dissatisfaction
  • dieting
  • “fat talk”
  • emotional eating
  • perfectionism
  • the “superwoman” ideal

Based on their analysis of the literature, it appears that all of these factors may play a role both in disordered eating and obesities.

In addition, their findings suggest that these factors may induce triggers, exacerbated by perfectionism and excess weight, that increase the risk of binge eating. These triggers include interpersonal discrepancies, low interpersonal esteem, depressive affect, and dietary restraint.

These findings clearly emphasise the potential importance of interventions targeting the negative cognitions and behaviours in addressing both disordered eating and obesities among females.

As noted before, it appears that when it comes to the relationship between unhealthy eating behaviours and obesities, it may be far more important to address the “why” than the “what”.

Obviously, these findings also support the notion that policies equating “health” with “weight” together with the societal obsessions with thinness and weight loss may well be root causes of the obesities epidemic.

This may certainly prove an important conundrum for public health campaigns focussing on reducing weight to improve population health.

Lake Louise, Alberta
Urquhart CS, & Mihalynuk TV (2011). Disordered eating in women: implications for the obesity pandemic. Canadian journal of dietetic practice and research : a publication of Dietitians of Canada = Revue canadienne de la pratique et de la recherche en dietetique : une publication des Dietetistes du Canada, 72 (1) PMID: 21382233