The Dangers of the Appearance-Driven Diet

A new study found that when people focus on looks, they're less tuned in to the body's signals of hunger and fullness.

Andy Wong / AP

Growing up I was terrified of being fat. My mother made disparaging remarks about girls on TV who were slightly chubby  and the teen magazines I read were endlessly obsessed with losing weight. On the eve of my first year in college, I learned of the Freshman 15 in one of those teen magazines—the apparent inevitability that every freshman would gain 15 pounds in their first year in college. I was even more horrified when I arrived at school and found myself facing an endless buffet of desserts and cheese-filled entrees. I suddenly had to rely on my own self-control to stop myself from eating ice cream for breakfast. I didn’t trust myself. I never had.

That’s when I turned to the world of glossy fitness magazines and calorie counting. I put myself on a stricter and stricter diet of endless running and shrinking portion sizes. But that wasn’t always enough—my body started rebelling with gnawing hunger and debilitating exhaustion. Whenever I felt like I was tempted to break my strict regime, I would turn to other people: I would look at people who were thinner than me as inspiration to get even thinner myself, and I would look at people who were bigger than me as inspiration for what not to look like. I became obsessed with appearances. One day I was changing in the morning when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The bones from my ribs and hips pushed softly from beneath my skin. I took a photo, in awe that my body was so different now from what it had ever looked like before.

Two years later though, things started getting out of control. I had lost so much weight that my advising dean wanted me to take time off of school. When I started trying to recover and eat more I found myself in a nightmarish spiral of binging and purging that I couldn't get out of. If I couldn’t trust myself with food before, I was actually scared of food now.

New research may give a clue to how things spiraled out of my control, at least in part.

Researchers from the Netherlands published a study in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that suggested that focusing on appearance could affect a person's sensitivity to their internal satiety cues.

"We found that focusing on how you look may hinder how you listen to your body’s hunger fullness cues and how you adjust your food intake," said Evelien van de Veer, the paper’s lead author.

Van de Veer and her team recruited 113 participants and conducted two experiments for their study. In the first experiment, researchers told participants they were participating in a milkshake taste test. They divided the participants into two groups. Both groups were given a milkshake to drink but only one group of participants had a mirror placed on their desk. Within each of these groups, half of the participants drank a high-calorie milkshake while the other half drank a low-calorie milkshake, but they were not told which one they were drinking. Fifteen minutes after the milkshake, the participants were asked to go into a room to watch a movie on a computer. There was a bowl of M&M's placed next to the computer. The researchers found that the participants who drank the high-calorie milkshake while looking at the mirror consistently ate more M&M's than the participants who drank the milkshake without looking into a mirror.

In the second experiment, researchers tested two groups of female participants. One group came before lunch (the “hungry condition”) and the other half came after eating a filling lunch (the “satiety condition”). Half of the participants in each condition were asked to look at advertisements depicting thin models. They then participated in a cracker taste test, did 15 minutes of a filler task, and then the experimenter told the participants that she would leave the crackers on the table so that they could help themselves if they wanted to. While people in the "hungry condition" ate about the same amount of crackers whether they saw the models or not, research found that those who were in the "satiety condition" tended to eat more crackers if they had looked at the advertisements beforehand.

Researchers drew upon past research on self-objectification and distracted eating to explain why people in the experiments were less likely to sense fullness if they were focused on appearance. In a study from 2006, women who were preoccupied with how others perceived their bodies (a state psychologists call self-objectification) were more likely to be distracted and unable to focus on cognitively challenging tasks. Previous studies also found that people who were distracted while eating were less likely to sense their body's internal satiety cues. Thus, researchers suggested in the study that people did not adjust their intake according to fullness cues if they were focused on appearance because they were distracted from sensing those cues.

Van de Veer said that the experiment was unique because it tested how participants adjust their food intake over two separate episodes of consumption. "A lot of experiments look at the effects of external stimuli on one moment of consumption but we wanted to show there are effects [of focusing on appearance] from one moment to one moment. How you adjust what you eat from moment to moment is important because that makes up your total food intake," she said.

Jenni Schaefer, eating disorder activist and author of Life Without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence from Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too, says that this research confirms something that people in the eating-disorder community have known for a long time. "Sometimes you'll hear people with eating disorders say they're like a walking head. There's really no connection to their hunger and fullness cues," Schaefer said. "Looking back at my own eating disorder ... I knew when I was really really hungry and I knew when I was really really really really stuffed. But I didn't know anything about those hunger fullness cues in between the far extremes."

But the research from the Netherlands doesn’t just apply to people with eating disorders, said Evelyn Tribole, the registered dietitian and nutrition counselor who pioneered the Intuitive Eating program in 1996. Chronic dieters also suffer from the negative impacts of focusing on appearance. “I see this over and over again—people eat according what they think celebrities or fitness models are eating,” Tribole said. “Then they begin to ignore their hunger fullness cues and even stop feeling them after awhile.”

Schaefer hopes that this research will prompt the dieting industry to help people break the cycle of endless dieting. “What's awesome about this study is that maybe the dieting industry will take note of this and help people make lifestyle changes as opposed to just going on diets, and change their marketing from being [based on appearance],” Schaefer said.

However, Evelyn Attia, director of the Center for Eating Disorders at Columbia University, says that it’s unlikely that one study will inspire that kind of sweeping change.

"I don't think the verdict is out yet. I'd love to see the study replicated and tested across a variety of foods and images," she said. “If it turns out that the study can be further substantiated it begins to suggest that outside elements in our environment other than food affects our eating habits."