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Fasting from diet-related New Year's resolutions

ASU psychology professor encourages a move toward attainable, process-orientated goals

A woman stretches out her arms towards the sun in celebration of a new year and new opportunities for personal growth

Photo courtesy Pexels

January 23, 2024

Going on a diet in January is as cliche as breaking it in February. 

But what if this annual resolution went the way of the cabbage soup diet? What if the new year didn’t mean going from holiday sweets to meals that would starve a mouse?

“I caution individuals about setting up New Year's resolutions when it comes to weight,” said Marisol Perez, an Arizona State University researcher. “And instead, I encourage them to think more about a strategic plan.”

Over the past 18 years, Perez, a professor in ASU’s Department of Psychology, has helped create programs for the prevention of eating disorders. Her research focuses on eating psychopathology and obesity — often centering on Latino populations and the intergenerational transmission of eating patterns.

Perez’s research team has served as a testing site for a series of websites that help connect confidence and a healthy body image to self-care in every area — including daily diets and food choices.

The sites include “Amazing Me” and “Confident Me,” which are part of the Dove Self Esteem Project, as well as “The Body Project,” which is used by the National Eating Disorders Association. Each site serves a different age group. 

During this time, when more people are thinking about their consumption habits, and ahead of Eating Disorders and Body Image Awareness Month in February, ASU News sat down with Perez to learn more about her work.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Marisol Perez is an ASU professor whose research focuses on obesity and eating disorders
Marisol Perez

Question: January is a popular time to start a new diet. What do you think about weight-related resolutions?

Answer: Many times, when people set New Year's resolutions — be it health goals, personal goals or professional goals — they're very rigid. And they focus on a desired outcome.

So often they are unrealistic or attainable. The reason why they are unattainable is because we can't predict what will happen in our environment or in our lives over the course of the next year. If our lives occurred in a vacuum, sure. But they don't. Our lives are chaotic and so, often our goals do not reflect or take into account the chaos.

Q: What do you recommend in lieu of resolutions related to diets? 

A: What I encourage people to do is think about how to live a vibrant and satisfying life. And work towards that.

And notice the language difference. That's a process goal. Not an outcome goal. I'm not saying I want to lose 30 pounds. I'm saying I want to live a vibrant and satisfied life. And that can vary by day or by month, depending on whatever happens in my life. But that's a more realistic and attainable goal.

Q: What causes eating disorders?

A: There is not one cause. It is really a multifactorial cause. For some individuals, genetics can play a role. For other individuals, it is their environment. There is not one answer in terms of what causes eating disorders. And that makes sense. People are complex. And so, the development of something like a mental health disorder is usually a myriad of factors that have come together.

Q: What has your research revealed about preventing eating disorders? 

A: There are a couple of aspects to my work. It focuses on preventing eating disorders, but it's also promoting body positivity, life satisfaction and health. They're related in terms of preventing eating disorders. In our prevention programs, there are a couple of risk factors that we target.

One is the internalization of beauty ideals that are promoted by society. ... In our prevention programs, we target unrealistic beauty ideal standards, and that includes media literacy about filters and how much of the media that we consume is not real.

Then we target the internalization of these ideal standards that leads to unhealthy behaviors.

An example is that some people say, "I want to lose 30 pounds because I want to look a certain way." But that doesn't mean they'll feel good when they lose 30 pounds. Or that they'll be satisfied with how they look.

Often people who are not satisfied with their appearance right now tend to not be satisfied with their appearance even if they achieve their goal (weight).

So we work on those things. We talk about pressures to conform to standards or ideals that may lead individuals down unhealthy pathways. ... Then we provide tools to combat those pressures.

Q: What is the connection between body image and eating disorders?

A: There's a great analogy that's used by Carolyn Becker (a clinical psychologist specializing in body image and eating disorders), which is that when you buy a brand new car, how do you treat it?

You treat it really well. You park it far away from other cars so nobody dings it. You maintain the service of it, right? Maybe you don't allow people to eat inside of the car.

Now, think about a car that you don't like. Or one that you think is junk or old. You treat that car very differently. 

Human beings actually have that same approach to a variety of things — not just cars — including their bodies.

Research shows that the more we actually appreciate and respect our bodies, the better we are at treating them. And the healthier we actually live. But more importantly, the happier we are in that process. And happiness is a great and rewarding factor for our behaviors and for how we live.

Q: Your research also involves the intergenerational transmission of eating behaviors. Can you explain that?

A: Yes. We learn so much from our family environment ... and the personalities and characteristics of all the members of that family.

For example, you may have a child who has a sweet tooth. You will see that, over time, the entire family increases their purchase and consumption of sweet products because of that one family member. 

So ... a lot of what we've learned is through childhood and through our family dynamic. ... What people also fail to consider is how much the environment shapes our behavior. For example, you might normally drink a lot of coffee and then travel somewhere else. In the new environment, you may go without coffee and not experience headaches or anything like that.

Your behavior has changed dramatically just by being in a different situation.

So even though we definitely can have a transmission of eating behaviors, it's not to say that our environment and how we change as individuals over time can't impact those behaviors as well.

Q: What do you think of organizations such as Overeaters Anonymous that provide group support to people suffering from eating disorders? 

A: Group support is really important. Humans are social beings. And we need a variety of resources, because people vary in their needs and what helps them.

Having support groups where people can come together, share their experiences and share strategies that they're using to live better lives is really essential. It's how we evolve when we have a problem. We reach out to people to see what they do, what they think, right?

These support groups are also helpful because therapy is expensive. And for some, it's out of their reach. So the more resources we can offer that are available and cost effective, the better. 

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