Today I’m going on a slight rant about something that has been on my mind for a while – body image. And because the majority of my clients (all but 1) are male athletes, I don’t run into the overt self-degrading body comments as often as many of my dietitian colleagues who work with women. However, I’ve run into a number of women lately who either put their bodies down, avoid social situations or the beach / pool / bathing suits because they feel “fat”, obsessively cover up their bodies, obsessively diet or exercise (or both) or engage in other self-depreciating comments and related behaviors stemming from how they feel about their body. And I always walk away thinking “one day she is going to look back and think ‘damn I looked good’ and regret wasting so much time and energy hating a body that helped her cross finish lines, hike mountains, pick up small children, build a beautiful garden and do so much more.”
And though I won’t get into the psychology behind body image and self worth or how to improve your body image (you can read more about that in this article), I do want to talk about how this affects a person’s overall health and sense of well-being. First and foremost, the people around you might not notice the subtle behaviors and words you speak (unless you have dietitian or psychologist friends) but your kids will (children, grandchildren, children you teach or coach). Anyone who has spent 5 minutes with a child knows they pick up everything. Now, let’s say you are that female who won’t wear shorts in the summer because you hate the way your legs look. Your little girl will stop wearing shorts and at some point think her legs look bad too. Or maybe you are the grandma who won’t wear a bathing suit to the beach because you can’t fit into the one you wore last year. Your grandkids will wonder why you aren’t going in the water with them. And finally, if you are a coach of young girls, an entire team will learn about how they should be viewing their bodies from what you think of yours.
In addition to affecting the people around you, I’ve noticed that women who don’t love the bodies they live in spend entirely too much time thinking about food and exercise. And by cutting out certain foods, going on cleanses or popular diets or drastically slashing their food intake, they are cutting out a number of nutrients necessary for good health. And the effects might not be obvious at first, but over time they will catch up to you. Cut calories and it will be difficult to get a number of vitamins, minerals and protein in your diet (And when you fall short on protein you will start losing muscle mass. Over time less muscle means you burn a few less calories each day and you won’t be able to exercise as hard in the gym so you burn fewer calories while working out. Both of these make it challenging to keep weight off over time. Plus less muscle means activities of daily living like gardening, picking up kids, or lifting groceries may be tough). Switch to a vegetarian diet and you better really plan on incorporating protein since you will need more total protein to keep and build muscle. Drop dairy and your bones, teeth and nails will suffer over time (yes you can eat kale, spinach and other leafy greens but you will need at least 10 cups of raw leafy greens a day if this is your only source of calcium). I’ve seen women in their 20s with osteopenia (low bone mass, this often comes before the brittle bone disease osteoporosis). And this is just the tip of the iceberg. But, here’s the most important point: your body image affects what you eat (more than just total calories) and don’t eat. And over time I’m going to make a stretch here and say (from observation) that body image-induced changes in diet affect your intake of vitamins and minerals and over time, consistent vitamin and mineral shortages will affect how your body functions and could impair several aspects of health. So, if you feel like you fall into this category of women or men who loathe your body, make the commitment right now to work on this. I promise you that you are wasting time as well as mental and physical energy. Plus, the changes you are making in an effort to keep weight off may be doing more harm than good.