A group of researchers at Brigham Young University recently reported on a study in which they exposed groups of men and women to pictures of obese same-sex individuals wearing swimsuits, and then instructed to imagine someone saying “your body looks like hers/his.” Participants were selected for being slim and having no history of eating disorders. Imaging techniques were used to gauge activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain location involved in self-reflection. In the women, the medial prefrontal cortex “lit up,” presumably indicating anxious comparisons with their own bodies. No comparable activity was observed in the men.
Cute little study, catchy enough to attract the attention of Newsweek. But what struck me most forcefully was less the findings of the study itself than a remark by one of the authors, who was quoted in Newsweek as saying that recruitment was a challenge because it was “hard to find women who were really thin but had no history of an eating disorder.”
As I observe in Chapter 3 of Life After Cigarettes: “The sad truth is that, except for exceptionally tall and large-boned women, the calorie quota required to maintain a healthy [and officially “normal”] weight is rather low and discouragingly easy to meet.” (Men – with their faster metabolism and larger body size – have a lot more latitude.)
There are numerous formulas for calculating how many calories are needed to maintain or reduce body weight, depending on sex, height, weight, age, amount of exercise, and sometimes additional variables, but for women the results typically fall in the range of 1,600 to 1,400 or even 1,200 calories per day. (Most experts would not recommend long-term restriction to less than 1,200 calories whatever the formulas may say.) Hardly a starvation diet, but it doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for snack attacks and dietary indulgences.
This can be tough for any woman, but especially the quitting smoker, who finds her appetite increasing at the same time as her caloric needs are decreasing. Fortunately, even small changes can make a big difference over time. Avoiding the twin hazards of perpetual hunger and perpetual body dissatisfaction shouldn’t call for heroics, but it will probably require tweaking along several dimensions – a little less food, a little more exercise, a little attitude adjustment (by which I mean recalibrating your idea of how much you should weigh by, say, 5-10 pounds, an amount that is within the grasp of most), and perhaps a few fashion tricks to keep you looking your most svelte. (These strategies are discussed in greater detail in Chapters 3-5 of Life After Cigarettes, as well as elsewhere in this blog.) And for good measure, throw in enough “media literacy” to recognize that we’re all being sold a feminine ideal rarely seen in nature.
Cynthia S. Pomerleau, Ph.D., is currently research professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. From 1985 to 2009 she served as director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory, where much of her research focused on the impact of smoking on women. She is the author of more than a hundred articles and book chapters on smoking and a contributor to the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Women and Smoking.