HEALTH CARE

Adolescent body image perceptions shape dietary habits, study finds

In a recent study published in the journal Nutrition Reviews, researchers review current literature to determine the association between dietary habits and body image perception and satisfaction in adolescents.

Study: Body image and dietary habits in adolescents: a systematic review. Image Credit: Ekaterina Vidiasova / Shutterstock.com

Body image perception

Adolescents undergo significant physical, behavioral, and psychological changes as they transition from childhood to adulthood. Self-image concerns during this impressionable age, which are influenced by opinions and pressures from family and peers, as well as ideas of the stereotypical ideal body image reinforced by social media, can trigger unhealthy dietary habits in adolescents.

Body image refers to a perception of one’s body size and shape that may or may not reflect the actual shape or size. This is often surrounded by feelings and thoughts one has about their perceived self-image.

Body image has components related to perception, satisfaction, behavior, and cognition. For example, body image perception refers to how accurately an individual perceives themselves, while body image satisfaction depends on how closely their perception of themselves matches their ideal body image.

Body image is interlinked with confidence, self-esteem, exercise, and eating behaviors and affects how often an individual has appearance-related thoughts. Furthermore, one’s body image perception can also influence decisions about how much and what type of foods are consumed.

While various studies have explored the general association between body image and eating disorders, few studies have specifically examined the association between body image and dietary habits in adolescents.

About the study

In the present study, researchers conduct a systematic review of studies that investigated whether body image perception and satisfaction in adolescents were linked to their dietary habits. Studies were included in the review if they were case-control, cross-sectional, or cohort studies in English, Spanish, or French.

The included studies examined the association between dietary habit indicators or dietary patterns such as daily consumption of fruits and vegetables, and body image perception and satisfaction among adolescents aged 10 to 18 years.

Exclusion criteria consisted of an aim to evaluate the impact of specific interventions, assessments using energy or specific nutrient intakes, or studies on a broader age group without a focus on adolescent participants.

Studies were compared by extracting standardized data on sample size, gender representation in the study population, publication year, outcomes related to body image perception, body image satisfaction, and dietary habits, as well as major findings on the associations between body image and dietary habits.

Results

The results were heterogeneous with respect to body image perception and eating habits. Some studies indicated that adolescents with body-weight misperceptions have more unhealthy dietary habits, whereas accurate perceptions of body weight led to greater adherence to healthy dietary patterns such as the Mediterranean diet.

Comparatively, other studies indicated that adolescents with a more accurate perception of their body weight had unhealthy dietary habits with a higher consumption of sweets, hamburgers, chips, and sweetened beverages.

Adolescents who either underestimate their weight or have an accurate perception of their body weight and do not consider themselves overweight might not feel the need to lose excess weight and may, as a result, indulge in unhealthy dietary habits. In contrast, adolescents who overestimate their weight might either aim to lose weight through healthy behaviors such as regular exercise and healthy dietary habits or indulge in unhealthy practices such as restrictive diets and excessive exercise.

Similar heterogeneity was noted in the association between body image satisfaction and dietary habits. Certain studies reported that adolescents who were satisfied with their body image indulged in healthy dietary habits such as the consumption of more vegetables and fruits.

Comparatively, adolescents who had body image dissatisfaction practiced restrictive diets and other unhealthy dietary habits. This observation contrasted with other studies reporting that dissatisfaction with body image encourages adolescents to eat healthier and adhere to a Mediterranean diet.

Gender-related patterns were also observed in the association between body image perceptions and dietary habits. In general, girls overestimated their body weight and had a desire to lose weight, while boys underestimated their body weight and attempted to gain more weight.

Furthermore, girls who wanted to lose weight indulged in healthier eating habits such as increased consumption of vegetables and fruits and reduced intake of processed foods; however, they also frequently skipped breakfast. In contrast, boys showed low adherence to healthier dietary patterns or a Mediterranean diet.

These gender-based differences in body image perceptions reflect different social pressures that act on girls and boys, with girls having a desire to be thinner and boys preferring a more muscular body type.

Conclusions

The association between body image perceptions and satisfaction and dietary habits was heterogeneous across studies. In general, adolescents who underestimated their body weight had more unhealthy eating habits than those who overestimated their body weight.

Girls generally desired to be thinner but showed higher adherence to healthy dietary habits, while boys, who had fewer healthy dietary habits, were more interested in being muscular and gaining weight.

Journal reference:

  • Bodega, P., de CosGandoy, A., Fernández Alvira, J. M., et al. (2023). Body image and dietary habits in adolescents: a systematic review. Nutrition Reviews. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuad044

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