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Body Image and You

Contributors: Sarah Klemm, RDN, CD, LDN

Published: May 12, 2022

Reviewed: April 20, 2022

body image and young women

It’s not uncommon for teenagers and adults to look in the mirror and wish they looked different from the reflection staring back at them. Models, actors, sports stars and other people who are praised for the way they look and used as a standard of success can have a powerful influence on how we view ourselves. However, the media is only one source that contributes to how we view ourselves. Negative body image can also be an effect of being teased, bullied or criticized over your appearance or having a low or elevated body weight compared to others.

For some people, these unrealistic goals can lead to an unhealthy body image and low self-esteem, as well as disordered eating behaviors. This may involve eating too little, eating too much or following a very strict diet of only "healthy" foods.

Since food and body image are closely linked, having a healthy body image may require the help of a registered dietitian nutritionist and a psychologist or other health care professionals. The overall goal of any treatment is to accept your body and learn how to balance food and emotions. When used the right way, food is a source of pleasure, nourishment and self-love.

Messaging Matters

Consider your attitudes and beliefs surrounding food, weight, health, physical activity and your level of satisfaction with your body image. How often are you critical of yourself in these areas?

For parents and those who work with adolescents and teenagers, you’re also an influence on how they view themselves. You can be a positive role model by not making judgments about your body or others'. Resist the urge to comment on physical appearances and recognize others for attributes that have nothing to do with what they look like.

Social media can also be an influence. Focus on engaging with people in real life rather than spending hours on your phone or computer. Unrealistic body ideals on social media may exacerbate negative body image. Parents may need to monitor the accounts children follow to ensure they are conducive to a positive relationship with food, physical activity and body image.

Balanced Eating Style

A balanced eating style is essential to overcoming poor body image issues. Embracing a variety of foods with balance is key. A healthy eating plan includes:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Protein foods like meat, fish, tofu, beans and lentils
  • Heart healthy fats, like vegetable oils, avocados and fatty fish
  • Fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese, or calcium-fortified soy versions

Although the foods above should make up the majority of what we eat throughout the day, there also is room for sweet and salty foods such as chips, chocolate and ice cream. Avoid labeling foods as "good" or "bad" or cutting out entire food groups

A vegetarian eating style also can be a part of a healthy eating plan as long as it is well planned and includes a variety of foods from all of the food groups including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and fat-free or low-fat dairy or fortified soy versions.

Physical Activity

For many people, physical activity helps boost self-esteem and alleviates stress. But, when being active becomes obsessive, occurring at inappropriate times, or interfering with other important activities, it becomes unhealthy. If you feel guilty, depressed or anxious if you miss a workout, it may be time to seek help.

For most healthy people, a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (such as walking, jogging, biking or dancing) most days of the week is recommended. Resistance training is also recommended at least twice a week. This helps keep muscles and bones strong. Resistance training includes free weights, wrist and ankle weights and rubber resistance bands. Body weight exercises such as squats and push-ups are great weight-bearing activities as well.

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