By: Anna Almendrala January 22, 2015 HuffingtonPost.com
Thinking you're fat could actually lead to weight gain, according to new research on body image in teens.
A paper published in the journal Psychological Science found that teens who have distorted body image — specifically, that they thought they were overweight when they were actually normal weight — had a 40 percent greater risk of becoming obese before turning 30, reports New York Magazine’s Science of Us.
Researcher Angelina R. Sutin of the Florida State University College of Medicine analyzed longitudinal (that is, long-term) survey responses from 6,523 people who checked in at 16 and then again at 28. Sutin realized that the teens who mistakenly thought they were overweight had a greater risk of becoming overweight as adults. She hypothesized that the inaccurate body image may be leading teens to diet in unhealthy or extreme ways, which as research shows is a surefire path to more weight gain down the road.
Sutin’s study isn’t the first to establish the link between a teen’s body image and their future weight. UCLA researcher A. Janet Tomiyama spoke with HuffPost in April about her investigation into the issue, which showed that when caregivers tell young girls they’re “too fat,” those girls have higher odds of becoming obese, no matter what their childhood weight.
Here, Tomiyama hypothesized that the stress of being criticized over weight may have led young girls to eat more.
"Anyone can do a simple thought experiment -- if someone makes you feel bad, what do you do? Does that motivate you?" said Tomiyama at the time. "Just put yourself in the shoes of a 10-year-old girl being told [she's too fat]."
Thankfully, research has also shown that it can work the other way, too; A good, accurate body image can lead to healthier measurements for weight and other factors. A famous mindset and exercise experiment from 2007 illustrates this well.
At the onset of the study, Harvard researchers Alia J. Crum and Ellen J. Langer surveyed 84 hotel maids about their daily exercise levels. Two-thirds claimed that they didn’t exercise regularly, and 36.8 percent said they didn’t get any exercise at all -- despite the fact that the daily duties of a hotel maid either meet or exceed the Surgeon General’s recommendations for an active lifestyle.
Then the maids were split into two groups; the experimental cohort learned that the daily work they did making up beds, cleaning rooms and vacuuming were good exercise, and satisfied the government’s description of a healthy, active lifestyle. The control group, however, was not given this information.
Four weeks later, the maids who had received an education about their naturally active lifestyle had managed to lose an average of two pounds and lower their blood pressure an average of 10 points. Their body fat levels, body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio were also healthier, noted the researchers.
The maids in this group reported no change to diet or lifestyle, except most of them now said, thanks to the education they had received, that they got regular exercise. The control group, on the other hand, showed no physical change.
Crum and Langer credited the hotel maids’ amazing short-term improvement to the “placebo effect” for exercise, and concluded that “it is clear that health is significantly affected by mindset.”
Adult weight gain is just one of several health consequences of distorted body image in teen years. Others include low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders. Parents can help counteract these ill effects with education and open dialogue about puberty, media representation and by modeling positive self-talk, according to the Mayo Clinic.