Summer is here and with it comes the pressure to slim down and get toned. Ads for diet and exercise products showcase ideal "bikini bodies," while tabloids harshly rate the "Best and Worst Celebrity Beach Bodies."
Sound familiar? As a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders, I've seen first-hand how summer presents a unique challenge for individuals struggling with body-image concerns. Even among people with a healthy body image, the "beach-body ideal" can spark feelings of inadequacy and depression.
In some cases, particularly among individuals with a family history of eating disorders and those with perfectionist, people-pleasing and reward-dependent personality traits, seasonal pressures to lose weight can trigger unhealthy behaviors.
In fact, many eating-disorder treatment professionals observe an increase in patients and families needing support as the weather heats up and people start shedding sweaters and jeans for shorts and swimsuits.
The desire to lose weight to look good in summer's skimpy fashions isn't the only factor that can set the stage for the emergence of an eating disorder. People who are more likely to develop an eating disorder prefer structure and predictability, yet summertime brings altered routines and more unstructured downtime.
These changes, transitions and new situations can result in anxiety and feeling "out of control," triggering coping mechanisms in an effort to regain a feeling of control. Dieting (including restricting calories, eliminating foods or whole food groups or purging calories) and excessive exercise helps alleviate this anxiety. People can easily control their calorie intake and energy output, oftentimes in secret and without drawing the attention of friends or loved ones.
When thinking about a healthy summer season, consider a holistic approach this year. Think beyond losing weight to achieve the coveted "beach body" and instead take steps to nurture your physical, emotional and spiritual health.
5 Tips for a Healthy, Happy Summer
1. Get Active
Find physical activities that make you feel good physically, emotionally and spiritually. Take a yoga class, go dancing or play volleyball on the beach. The goal of participating in these activities should be joy and connection with yourself, others and nature — not weight loss.
2. Think Positively
For those people who struggle to consciously depart from the strong seasonal pressure to lose weight, consider this: A 2012 study published in Psychological Bulletin found a correlation between a positive emotional state and healthy body weight.
If achieving a healthy weight or getting stronger is your goal, you're more likely to be successful and less likely to develop an eating disorder if you are nurturing your emotional health as well.
3. Focus on the Sensations of Summer
We often get so caught up in what we look like or what others look like that we forget to live in the moment. At the beach, forget about how you look in a bathing suit.
Instead, take time to feel the warmth of the sun on your skin (protected by sunscreen, of course), smell the salty sea air and listen to the sounds of the waves crashing.
4. Stay Hydrated
The simple act of drinking enough water throughout the day supports your overall health. And it's especially important in warmer weather when your body lose hydration at a faster rate. Besides uncomfortable physical symptoms like fatigue and headache, dehydration can make you grumpy and irritable.
Another benefit of drinking water? A 2013 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition a connection between proper hydration and a healthy body weight.
5. Make Time for Sharing
Summer often brings changes to our standard routines and opportunities for new adventures. Take time to talk to the people in your life. Acknowledging fear, anxiety, depression or a perceived loss of control can help families, loved ones and health care professionals identify unhealthy coping strategies early and provide ongoing support, guidance and encouragement as well as intervention when necessary.
Eating disorders are complex illnesses that develop as a result of a complex constellation of factors, including genetics, temperament and environmental factors. While dieting and exercising to achieve a "beach-ready" physique can contribute to the development of an eating disorder, we need to be mindful when talking about causation.
Wanting and working toward a thinner physique for summer does not cause an eating disorder. However, among those at higher risk for developing an eating disorder, seasonal pressure and resulting behaviors can trigger anorexia, bulimia or other food, eating and body-image disorders.