• Your body image is how you think and feel about your body.
  • Your body image may not be accurate. Many people think they are overweight or underweight when they are not.
  • Poor body image is often linked to dieting, over-exercising, or eating disorders.
  • Frequent dieting can affect your mental and physical health.
Your body image is how you think and feel about your body. Body image involves your thoughts, perceptions, imagination and emotions. It does not necessarily reflect what you see in the mirror or what other people see. 

Poor body image is often linked to dieting, over-exercising, or eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, and to other mental health issues such as low self-esteem, depression or anxiety. 

Poor body image or body dissatisfaction can also result from comparing your body with what society and the media tell you is the ideal body size and shape. The perceived body ideal can vary over time and between cultures. Some research shows that, after moving to Australia, some women from other countries take on body image and diet habits that are not common in their country of origin.

Some people diet because they have a poor body image, rather than because they want to eat nutritionally well, or be in a healthy weight range. While it's important to maintain healthy eating behaviours, constant dieting can lead to physical illness and depression, especially if your weight goes up and down after dieting. 

It is well documented that even 'moderate' dieting increases the risk of developing an eating disorder. Dieting or restrictive eating can also lead to preoccupation with thoughts about food.

Body image and weight issues

Some people think they are overweight when they are not. For example:
  • Among people within the healthy weight range, women are three times more likely than men to believe that they are overweight.
  • Of teenagers within a healthy weight range, 10 per cent of females and three per cent of males think that they are overweight.
  • At least 20 per cent of women who are underweight think that they are overweight and are dieting to lose weight.

Weight loss from dieting does not last

A 2017 national survey of 1,033 Australians aged 18--64 years found that 46 per cent of adults had actively tried to lose weight in the past year.

Yet, research shows that dieting for weight loss is not effective in the longer term, and may actually be associated with weight regain. In some cases, people may regain more than they lost through dieting.

This 'weight loss, weight gain' seesaw may put you at risk of heart disease and other health problems. Some studies have shown that just one cycle of weight loss and weight gain is a risk factor for the development of heart disease later in life. 

If you are concerned about your own or your child's weight, consult with your GP, paediatrician or dietitian. 

Dieting affects your health and mental state

Women who diet frequently are more likely to:
  • binge eat
  • purge food (vomit) or misuse laxatives
  • restrict food intake too much and not get the nutrients they require for good health
  • over-exercise 
  • have poor physical health
  • become depressed or anxious
  • develop an eating disorder
  • become preoccupied with food.

Women need a layer of protective fat

It is normal for women to have fat on their hips and thighs. Frequent dieting will not remove this fat. It is vital for:
  • fertility and breastfeeding
  • prevention of osteoporosis
  • healthy skin, eyes, hair and teeth.

Men also worry about their body image

Body image affects men as well as women. Research suggests that 11 per cent of Australian males aged over 15 years have dieted to lose weight in the last year. And increasing numbers of teenage boys and men are engaged in muscle-building to achieve the male muscular ideal through body building and use of steroids (also known as image and performance enhancing drugs) or protein supplements.  

Where to get help

  • Abbott RA, Lee AJ, Stubbs CO and Davies PS 2010, 'Accuracy of weight status perception in contemporary Australian children and adolescents', Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, vol. 46, no. 6, pp. 343--348. More information here.
  • Aussies wasting time and money on fad diets, 2017, Dietitians Association of Australia. More information here.
  • Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results -- Foods and Nutrients, 2011-12, 2014, Australian Bureau of Statistics, no. 4364.0.55.007. More information here.
  • Eichen DM, Conner BT, Daly BP and Fauber RL 2012, 'Weight perception, substance use, and disordered eating behaviors: comparing normal weight and overweight high-school students', Journal of Youth and Adolescence, vol. 41, no.1, pp. 1--13. More information here.
  • Frederick DA, Buchanan GM, Sadehgi-Azar L, et al. 'Desiring the muscular ideal: Men's body satisfaction in the United States, Ukraine, and Ghana', Psychology of Men and Masculinity, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 103--117. More information here.
  • Hayward J, Millar L, Petersen S, et al. 2014, 'When ignorance is bliss: weight perception, body mass index and quality of life in adolescents', International Journal of Obesity, vol. 38, no. 10, pp. 1328--1334. More information here.
  • Keel P K, Baxter MG, Heatherton TF and Joiner Jr. TE. 2007, 'A 20-year longitudinal study of body weight, dieting, and eating disorder symptoms', Journal of Abnormal Psychology, vol. 116, no. 2, pp. 422--432. More information here.
  • Mann T, Tomiyama AJ, Westling E et al. 2007, 'Medicare's search for effective obesity treatments: diets are not the answer', American Psychologist, vol. 62, no. 3, pp. 220--233. More information here.
  • Neumark-Sztainer D, Wall M, Larson NI et al. 2011, 'Dieting and disordered eating behaviors from adolescence to young adulthood: Findings from a 10-year longitudinal study', Journal of the American Dietetic Association, vol. 111, no. 7, pp. 1004--1011. More information here.

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This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by: Eating Disorders Victoria (EDV)

Last updated: June 2016

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