Does All Body Dissatisfaction Predict Eating Problems in Women?

In general terms, women are more conscious of their bodies than men. Rates of eating and food problems are much higher in women than they are in men. And society puts much more emphasis on female physical appearance than on the physical appearance of males. Additionally, women tend to face more objectification than men. In all, these conditions combine to increase the risk of body dissatisfaction in women. This can lead to significant mental health problems, the most common of which include anorexia (AN), bulimia (BN), and other conditions of disordered eating (ED). Women who experience these issues often demonstrate distorted self-perceptions and emotional reactions.

In fact, it has been shown that women with high levels of body dissatisfaction respond to weight and body image words with fear and avoidance, similar to the way in which people with anxiety respond to threatening cues. Other indications of ED vulnerability may include the physiological response to such cues, but this theory has yet to be fully tested. Therefore, Cornelia Herbert of the Department of psychology at the University of Wurzburg in Germany recently led a study that measured the heart rate and startle response in a sample of 41 women.

Herbert exposed the women to words that were related to weight and body shape and neutral words and found that although the majority of the women responded to the body related words with increased heart rate, only those at risk for ED had increased startle responses. In fact, these women were more likely to exhibit symptoms of disordered eating, such as extreme dieting, excessive exercising, and negative body image, when compared to those with normal startle responses.

These findings are extremely important because they can provide a unique way in which to identify women most at risk for ED. Although most women may have some level of body dissatisfaction, and as the results of this study show, have a physiological response to any words related to the body, those who may go on to develop EDs are clearly distinguishable. Herbert added, “Peripheral-physiological measures such as the startle reflex could possibly be used as predictors of females’ risk for developing EDs in the future.” She hopes that these findings help identify those women in the earliest stages in order to prevent them from the negative consequences associated with EDs.

Herbert, C., Kübler, A., Vögele, C. (2013). Risk for eating disorders modulates startle-responses to body words.” PLoS ONE 8(1): e53667. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0053667

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • selena


    May 12th, 2013 at 9:13 PM

    prevention of major problems including eating disorders is necessary,but I’m surprised how increased heartbeat is not considered seriously enough.why should women subject themselves to such a thing just because others want to tell them how they should look or what kind of body they ought to have??

    I own my body and nobody has the right to comment or dictate things to me.

  • Hailey


    May 13th, 2013 at 1:29 AM

    Great article cannot get enough emphasis on this so many women suffering with body image these days.

  • Bernie


    May 13th, 2013 at 1:31 AM

    Man my ex sister-in-law sure did suffer with this like it almost killed her. She had to be in two different treatment facilities I think my dad even ended up paying for it. It was so scary when she almost died. Well anyway her and my brother split up so I don’t know if she still has it or not but the therapist I talked to about it says it is so hard to cure that it is very resistant to treatment.

  • Ford


    May 13th, 2013 at 1:34 AM

    This whole topic is so frustrating for me. Why do women do this to themselves? It is such a controllable thing. It’s not like someone is forcing you to eat or not eat. I just wish women could see eating for what it is: a very simple Math equation. Your body needs a set amount of calories (with different types of food comprising those calories) based on the amount of energy you use. Figure out the Math and then just do the equation 5 or 6 out of 7 days and then just don’t worry about it the other one or two. It is really just a simple math problem. Take the emotional component out because it really doesn’t have anything to do with emotions. It’s just very simple Math!

  • Sara Catherine

    Sara Catherine

    May 13th, 2013 at 1:37 AM

    I just think it is so funny. That everybody puts so much pressure on women to look a certain way. But not men. But men are the ones that don’t have so much problems With body image. Maybe if women stopped putting so much pressure on themselves. They wouldn’t have so many problem. Just sayin.

  • Tom


    May 13th, 2013 at 1:39 AM

    Oh, I so disagree. There is just as much pressure on men to look a certain way as there is women. Don’t even give me that. Go walk through any mall, look on any city us, watch any TV show commercial or movie and tell me that society doesn’t say men’s bodies should look a certain way. Give me a break.

  • bee h

    bee h

    May 13th, 2013 at 1:41 AM

    i tell you what’s sad.
    i have never ever been satisfied with my weight.
    even on my wedding day i didn’t feel beautiful b/c I thought I should have been ten pounds lighter.
    we are our own worst critic.
    let’s knock it off, shall we?

  • Barbara Mansfield

    Barbara Mansfield

    May 13th, 2013 at 1:43 AM

    Well I guess I was wrong cuz I thought anorexia and all that other disorder stuff wasn’t about food at all it was about control.

  • Jacob


    May 13th, 2013 at 1:46 AM

    So interesting that this study was done in Germany. I spent time there a few years back and one thing was very clear-there were nowhere near as many obese people there as there are in the states. Like, it’s not even close. People over there ride their bikes or walk most places. In the dead of winter they’ll drive or take the bus, but as soon as the weather breaks in the Spring, they are outside almost all the time.

  • Garet


    May 13th, 2013 at 1:48 AM

    Just wondering-what is excessive exercising?

    How is that defined?

    Just wondering if that’s what I do.

    I get ssssoooooo made about my weight and then I exercise like crazy.

  • Tim


    May 13th, 2013 at 1:50 AM

    What a great thing-to be able to identify an ED before it really gets going. Boy, that could really save a lot of people a lot of heart ache. It is so difficult to treat an eating disorder so it is very encouraging that we may be able to stop it before it really gets started. I am intrigued to find out more!

  • Mills


    May 13th, 2013 at 3:50 AM

    The only reason that I don’t think that these things must always correlate is that there are plenty of people who moan all the time about needing to lose weight and that they are fat but that they never do anything about it. Surely they are dissatisfied with their bodies and what they look like, but then they still eat like they want and don’t exercise and just in general don’t do anything that they know would actually work to lose weight and maybe get a little more comfortable with themselves. Whatever it is, they are not willing to put the work into it to make the difference, so in some ways they must still be fine with their body and pretty satisfied with the way that they look.



    May 13th, 2013 at 11:50 PM

    I don know y but startle response does not sound like a very convincing yardstick…It could be due to d emotional condition,d spontaneous feelings nd many other factors.just how accurate could this be?

  • Linda Stanhope

    Linda Stanhope

    May 14th, 2013 at 4:20 AM

    That is so interesting. Startle reflex? I wonder what was the initial “event” that may have changed the person’s healthy body image to one of having ED? Some sort of trauma or even a seemingly non-threatening event maybe? It has to have started somewhere. Thoughts? Linda, pastoral counselor.

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