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Can Feeling Fat Make You Fat?

"Fat thoughts" sow the seeds of self-defeating actions.

You and your self-image?

Have you been having any “fat thoughts” lately? You know the kind: “I feel fat.” “Why is my belly fat, not flat?” and the classic, “I wonder if these pants make my butt look fat.” Breathes there any American woman or man who is not susceptible to these thoughts at some point?

But beware your “fat thoughts!” Besides the harsh self-judgment that makes you feel bad about yourself, it turns out that “fat thoughts” can have long-term effects on weight and well-being in both teens and adults.

In a survey summarized here, Norwegian researchers surveyed 1,196 Norwegian teens of both sexes between 1995 and 1997. All teens studied were of normal weight. But some of them, mostly young women, perceived themselves as “fat." How would these “fat thoughts” affect them as they became older?

The same teens were surveyed again from 2005 to 2008 when they were between 24 and 30 years of age. The researchers discovered that half the participants still had normal weight as adults. But of the half that were now overweight, 59-78 percent of the women who had felt fat as teens were now overweight, depending on the measure used. Only 31-55 percent of the girls who had not rated themselves as fat during the initial survey were now overweight.

This spooky phenomenon of “thinking fat” and then “getting fat” is not limited to teens. According to the article, “Similar studies have previously been conducted in normal weight adult men and women. These studies have also shown an increase in weight over time in those who perceived themselves as too fat.”

To be clear—it’s not the “fat thoughts” themselves that mysteriously caused weight gain. If they had, every teen who perceived herself as overweight would have become overweight, and that was not the case. Rather, the researchers speculated that a preoccupation with feeling fat could have led to actions that triggered weight gain. For example, these self-defeating actions, although intended to help a person lose weight, actually can sow the seeds of future weight gain:

  1. Dieting. The feeling of being fat can lead to dieting. As numerous studies show, following a restrictive diet that cannot be maintained over time leads to a sense of deprivation and to regaining the lost weight, and then some, over time.
  2. Self-judgment. Judging yourself because you don’t measure up to an “ideal” body type is a form of psychosocial stress, and stress is linked to weight gain.
  3. Skipping meals. Fear of fat might have led some participants to skip meals. Skipping meals, breakfast in particular, is associated with weight gain.

So what can you do if you find that “fat thoughts” have crept into your mind?

Given the media’s size-0 mentality, I doubt that we can ever completely rid ourselves of these thoughts. So here are some ways to cope when “fat thoughts” do intrude on you, as they no doubt will:

1. Just notice these "fat thoughts" without judging yourself or leaping into "corrective" action. Resist the temptation to go on a diet, skip meals, or obsess about your weight. Remind yourself that “fat thoughts” are just thoughts, thoughts that don’t need to have any power over your life. Let them scroll by on that great ticker tape of your mind! (If you need to lose weight for your health, remind yourself of your goals and motivators rather than attacking yourself for your size.)

2. Become even more determined to take care of yourself in a healthy way--get plenty of sleep, eat regular meals, exercise, and view the media with a skeptical eye.

3. Use the RAINS method. The "RAINS" method can be used for any form of negative thinking or self-caused mental torture. Briefly, the process is: Recognize your hurtful thoughts: "I'm criticizing myself again." Acknowledge your distress: "Thinking 'fat thoughts' makes me feel unlovable." Investigate your thinking: "Do I really have to be supermodel thin to be loved?" Do not identify with the thoughts: "This could be the media in my head." Practice self-compassion: "No one deserves needless pain, including me."

4. You could also counter your “fat thoughts” with healthy messages like, "When I start to think this way, I'll focus on something more worthwhile, like family or work." "Happiness comes from within, not from thin." Make up your own mantra and tell us what it is in "Comments!" I also like the simple messages below from a website devoted to eating disorders recovery:

“I will accept myself as I am.”

“I will accept others as they are.”

(c) Meg Selig

I am the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For more info on health, habits, and willpower, like me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter.


"Similar studies." “Feeling Fat May Make You Fat, Study Suggests:”