Study: High body satisfaction among overweight girls associated with less weight gain over time

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A new study from the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota suggests high body satisfaction among overweight adolescents was not harmful in terms of weight control over a 10-year period. Furthermore, high body satisfaction among overweight girls was associated with less weight gain over time compared to girls with very low body satisfaction.

The findings, which were published today in the Journal of Adolescent Health, utilized data from 496 participants of Project EAT (Eating and Activity Among Teens), a 10-year longitudinal study developed to examine eating, activity, and weight-related factors among young people.

“We know that having low body satisfaction during adolescent places young people at risk for a number of negative health outcomes, including low self-esteem, depression and the development of eating disorders,” said Katie Loth, Ph.D., lead author and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota. “However, it is sometimes argued that experiencing low levels of body satisfaction might be beneficial to young people that are overweight. Some people believe if young people feel badly about their bodies this might provide them to the necessary motivation to successfully engage in weight-loss efforts. The results of this study suggest otherwise.”

Over the course of the 10-year longitudinal study, Loth examined change in body mass index (BMI) within a group of overweight adolescents. She then looked to see how change in BMI over this 10-year follow-up period differed based on the adolescent’s level of body satisfaction at baseline. 

According to the study, overweight girls with the lowest body satisfaction at baseline had a nearly 3-unit greater increase in BMI at follow-up, compared to overweight girls in the high body satisfaction group. This means, for example, that a young women with a BMI of 26 at baseline and high body satisfaction, was found to have, on average, a BMI of 29 at follow-up.  On the other hand, a young women with the same BMI (26) accompanied by very low body satisfaction at baseline was found to have, on average, a BMI of 32 at follow-up.

“We believe this difference in weight gain over time will have important clinical implications for these women over the course of their lifetime,” said Loth. “In our view, the most important take-away message from this study is that feeling satisfied with their bodies does not lead to higher BMI among overweight girls; on the contrary, satisfaction predicts less weight gain over time.”

The study also found boys showed no significant associations between body satisfaction and BMI.

Loth stresses that it is crucial for parents of teenagers as well as educators and clinicians working with overweight adolescent girls understand the importance of a positive body image for the overall physical and psycho-social health of young people.

“It is crucial for adolescents, regardless of their size, to develop a positive sense of their bodies.  We, as friends, parents, teachers, and clinicians of adolescents should strive to emphasize body acceptance to the young people in our lives. We must advocate against obesity-related public health messages that might inadvertently shame individuals for their body weight or shape and instead work to replace these messages with information about the importance of body acceptance and choosing sustainable, healthy lifestyle choices,” said Loth.