WILL LOSING THOSE EXTRA KILOS MAKE YOU HAPPY? SCIENCE SAYS PROBABLY NOT.
Maintaining a positive body image nowadays is very difficult when we are daily assaulted with a barrage of perfectly photoshopped images in magazines, on the Internet and splashed across billboards. Strong emphasis is now placed on the importance of being slender for women and for appearing athletic and/or lean for men. In such an overtly shallow environment focussed on outward appearance, is it any great surprise that a strong link between body image and happiness levels permeates modern society and has many people asking: ‘Will losing a few extra kilos make me happier?’
A recent survey* by Chapman University in the United States looked at 12,176 adult women and men aged between 18 and 65 and found that approximately 15 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women were ‘extremely dissatisfied’ with their weight. Amongst the women, body image ranked third as the strongest indicator of overall satisfaction with life; the only stronger ones were related to their financial situation and romantic partner. For men, body image was the second strongest indicator, following life and financial satisfaction respectively. Overall, people who were more satisfied with their appearance reported greater self-esteem and satisfaction with their sex and romantic life, family, friends and finances.
And thus the wheel keeps turning, with people believing that a leaner, fitter and ultimately happier them is just 10 kilos away. Sadly, new research suggests that improving the quality of your diet is actually a better recipe for success than losing that extra tire around your belly. Although maintaining a healthy diet is instrumental in treating existing depression sufferers and stopping others from developing it, a new review of food-mood studies has shown that the relationship between depression and diet is quite independent of body weight.
What comprises a healthy diet? Basically, you need to avoid all those tempting and ubiquitous ‘extras’ that flout themselves in TV commercials and in the grocery aisle. Foods that provide energy, but offer little to no nutritional value, such as chocolate, cake, chips and candy should be high on your avoidance list as they only feed your fat cells. You’re better off focussing your caloric intake on what is known as ‘brain foods’, aka those which are high in fats and nutrients, for example, fatty fish, olive oil, nuts, yoghurt and avocado. These foods, as well as greens and whole grains, are broken down into molecules that feed your gut bugs, which in turn help build neurotransmitters, fight inflammation and protect healthy brain cells.
For example, a 2013 study** followed participants on a 12-week diet treatment program to improve depression. Amongst those who participated, a large number were overweight and did not manage to significantly alter their BMI over the course of the experiment. Even though they didn’t lose any significant weight, these participants did report large improvements in their depression symptoms, with a full one-third of them going into remission.
Science aside, there is no dispute that being a healthy weight is of vital importance for overall wellbeing, both physical, mental and, for some, spiritual. What is interesting is that whilst being overweight does increase one’s likelihood of being depressed, it doesn’t appear to prevent these same people from reaping the physiological and psychological benefits of eating well.
What does that mean? Simply put, diet does exert tremendous affects on our mood, independent of a change in weight. Having said that, the science behind it is still not 100 per cent clear. For example, a diet filled with fruits, vegetables and fibre can improve the health of your gut microbiota through bacterial fermentation and the production of anti-inflammatory fatty acids. Without getting too much into the science behind it, the circulatory biomarkers that regulate our moods are heavily influenced by both microbiota and our immune system, which in turn influence our stress and nervous systems. This is why a reduction in something like chronic inflammation can have such a strong impact on depression, as it’s one of the leading causes.
Going back to the beginning of this article, the research clearly outlines the undesirable effects of a negative body image, whereby extreme dissatisfaction directly impacts a person’s health. According to the American Psychological Association, poor body image can result in both mental and physical health consequences, including anorexia and obesity. That’s why making lifestyle changes to improve how we feel and function is so essential, especially for anyone prone to depression. Losing weight is a long process, but the good news is that the benefits of eating well can be felt relatively quickly, whether you’re overweight or slim. You don’t need to go to extremes and create a huge deficit in calories; it’s better to focus on the quality, not the quantity of your caloric intake.
Take simple steps, like swapping chips or chocolate for fruit and nuts, and using a food journal to jot down how you feel after eating them. If you feel energised, proud and full, that’s good. If you feel sluggish, guilty and hungry, that’s bad. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Unlike many other factors that contribute to your mental health, food is a domain over which you have complete control. Keep in mind the essential Japanese philosophy of kaizen – the art of making lasting changes through small, steady steps. Even if the scale doesn’t move, you’ll be shifting your mental health in a positive direction.
*Dr. David Frederick and Gaganjyot Sandhu of Chapman University, Patrick Morse, Ph.D. of University of California at Riverside; and Viren Swami, Ph.D. of the University of Westminster, London, “Correlates of appearance and weight satisfaction in a U.S. national Sample: Personality, attachment style, television viewing, self-esteem, and life satisfaction is published in the journal Body Image”, May 2016
**Adrienne O’Neil, Michael Berk, Catherine Itsiopoulos, David Castle, Rachelle Opie, Josephine Pizzinga, Laima Brazionis, Allison Hodge, Cathrine Mihalopoulos, Marya Lou Chatterton, Olivia M Dean and Felice N Jacka, BMC Psychiatry, “A randomised, controlled trial of a dietary intervention for adults with major depression (the “SMILES” trial): study protocol”, 15 April 2013