New research on how men and women view their bodies shows that women who accept their looks are more likely to eat healthily, but men feeling pressure to have a lean, muscular image may engage in unhealthy eating and exercise behavior.
Presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, in New Orleans, an Ohio State University study found that men with low opinions of their bodies engaged in dangerous behaviors, such as eating disorders, steroid use, and an unhealthy preoccupation with weightlifting. Companion research presented at the meeting found that women who accept their bodies are more likely to eat healthy.
The male study included 285 college students who were asked a series of questions to determine how much pressure they felt to be muscular and lean from family, friends, romantic partners and the media. The more pressure the men perceived, the more they felt they had to live up to the muscular ideals.
"They start to believe that the only attractive male body is a muscular one. And when they internalise that belief, they judge themselves on that ideal and probably come up short, because it is not a realistic portrayal of men," study author Tracy Tylka, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State, said in a prepared statement.
Pressure to improve
The more the men in the study were dissatisfied with their bodies, the more likely they were to engage in unhealthy behaviors in an attempt to change their bodies.
"There's a difference between men who exercise and change their eating habits for health reasons and men who do these things because they feel pressure to improve their bodies," Tylka noted.
"It is good to exercise, to lift weights, and to eat the foods that make your body function well," she said. "But it is not good to be preoccupied with gaining muscle mass. Those that are preoccupied are not working out to get healthier, they are working out to bulk up. They are not eating healthy, they are cutting out major food groups like carbohydrates and eating massive amounts of protein."
Tylka added that this kind of body-image pressure has plagued women for decades but is a more recent trend for men.
She also took part in the research that found that women who accept their bodies are more likely to eat a healthier diet. This suggests that women's typical reasons for altering their diet - dissatisfaction with their bodies - may backfire.
'Dissatisfaction is healthy'
"The message that women often hear is that some degree of body dissatisfaction is healthy, because it could help them strive to take care of their bodies. But it may be just the opposite: An appreciation of your body is needed to really adopt better eating habits."
Tylka and her colleagues conducted studies on "intuitive eating," which is based on three components - unconditional permission to eat when hungry and to eat what food you desire; eating for physical rather than emotional reasons; and reliance on internal hunger and fullness clues to determine when and how much to eat.
In a study published in the April issue of the Journal of Counseling Psychology, Tylka found that women who used intuitive eating had slightly lower body mass index (BMI) scores than other women.
"There's this belief that if you give people unconditional permission to eat, they are going to binge and add on a lot of pounds. But that's not what we have found," Tylka said.
"It seems amazing, but it is true. If you listen to your body signals in determining what, when, and how much to eat, you are not going to binge, and you're going to eat an appropriate amount of nutrient-dense foods," she added.
Intuitive eaters appreciate their body more
The research presented at this week's conference included data on 597 college women. Those who said they were intuitive eaters reported higher levels of appreciation for their own body. They were less likely than other women to spend a lot of time thinking about how their body appears to other people and more likely to consider how their body feels and functions.
The researchers found that the intuitive eaters felt more unconditional acceptance of their bodies by parents and others when they were growing up. These women also felt that the people currently in their lives accepted their bodies.
"When women feel that the people in their life accept their body, they don't feel like they need to lose weight or tone up to be worthwhile. That seems to be directly related to eating intuitively," Tylka said.
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