People who eat when they are hungry tend to be more satisfied with their body and generally have higher self-esteem, a new international study suggests.
Published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, the study indicates that, contrary to popular ideas that it is important to ‘control’ hunger, paying attention to hunger and fullness cues appears to be linked to maintaining a lower weight.
In contrast, those who rely on food as a source of comfort or avoid certain types or amounts of food are less satisfied with their bodies and have lower self-esteem, says the research which involved more than 6,000 young adults in eight countries.
Lead researcher Dr Charlotte Markey, professor of psychology at Rutgers University (NJ, USA), said: “Cultural messages constantly suggest that it’s important to ignore our bodies’ hunger and satiety cues, but trusting our bodies and eating when we feel hunger – in other words, eating intuitively -- seems to be better for both our psychological and physical health.”
Researchers examined three types of eating style and related factors rarely studied together: intuitive eating, emotional eating (eating in response to internal emotional signals, for example in response to feeling stressed) and restrained eating (also known as dietary restraint, where consumption is rigidly restricted with the aim of losing or maintaining weight).
A total of 6,272 young adults with an average age of about 21 completed the study survey. They were based in Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Italy, Japan, Spain and the United States.
Young adults were chosen because they experience social and psychological transitions and research shows they appear to be at risk of being dissatisfied with their bodies. In addition, this development period is linked with an increase in weight as well as changes in lifestyle habits.
However, the findings are consistent with some research that suggests they are likely to be true of all adults.
The study found that the more people ate intuitively, the happier they tended to be with their body. They also had higher self-esteem and lower weight.
However higher levels of restrained and emotional eating were generally associated with lower body satisfaction and self-esteem, and being heavier. The researchers conclude that the results suggest that eating styles are likely to be associated with how people feel about their bodies and how they feel in general.
In addition, ‘we can deduce that these eating styles may affect individual’s actual consumption, given the association sometimes found with weight status’, the study says.
Dr Markey suggests: “This research is in sync with evidence that dieting is ineffective for both weight loss and body satisfaction – and often counterproductive. We should aim to be more in tune with our own physiology than the latest trendy diet or eating plan.”
Some cultural differences between countries was noticed, the authors state, and this would be worthy of further examination.