Does Weight Loss Improve Self-Esteem?

Does Weight Loss Improve Self-Esteem?
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 23 January, 2023

Many people struggle on a daily basis with their weight because they don’t feel good about their body image. It affects their quality of life, feelings of satisfaction, and even the value they place on themselves. This is hardly surprising as, in society today, physical appearance is prioritized. In fact, it often determines whether we’re accepted or discriminated against. However, does weight loss really improve self-esteem?

Of course, staying healthy and taking care of our bodies is extremely beneficial. But, we have the tendency to think that the way we look is the cause of our unhappiness and that, if only we managed to conform to certain beauty standards, we’d feel completely different. Have you ever felt this way? We’re going to explore the idea in more detail.

Woman looking in the mirror with fear
The self-esteem boost from receiving external validation and approval isn’t particularly strong.

Weight loss and psychological well-being

It’s important to remember that body weight is more than just a number. I ts social and cultural implications link it to psychological well-being. In fact, social pressure leads overweight people to feel inadequate and defective. This limits their psychosocial functioning. Consequently, they may not only develop a bad image of themselves but also tend to isolate themselves socially and limit their sexual/emotional interactions.

Several investigations support the idea that weight loss improves self-esteem. A systematic review conducted on these studies yielded some interesting results:

  • Weight loss is consistently associated with improved self-esteem. In most of the studies analyzed, the participants showed an increase in their self-esteem after completing a program or intervention aimed at losing weight.
  • Being overweight seems to have a negative emotional impact. It may also be related to the appearance of depressive symptoms. Thus, losing weight seems to improve people’s mood.
  • Body image is highly associated with weight loss. This term refers to dissatisfaction with the body, the individual’s evaluation of their appearance, preoccupation with body shape, and image avoidance. All these aspects improved when the participants lost weight. Furthermore, it was observed that the greater the weight loss, the greater the improvement.
  • Losing weight also seems to improve the quality of life. On a subjective level, people who lost weight had a more positive perception of their own physical, social, and psychological functioning. In other words, they experienced greater well-being, felt healthier, were better able to face daily life, and felt less stigmatized.

The relationship between weight loss and self-esteem

In light of the previous findings and other similar ones, we can affirm that weight loss improves self-esteem. However, this isn’t as simple and direct an answer as it might seem. In fact, we need to go a little deeper.

Firstly, the previous review found the improvement in self-esteem was independent of weight loss. In fact, even if the participants gained weight during the intervention, they experienced psychological benefits from having participated in the program.

This can be explained by the fact that the components of these interventions (mostly cognitive-behavioral) focused on a crucial change in perspective. The programs fostered self-acceptance, helped to decouple eating behavior from emotions, and promoted a change in attitudes toward the size and shape of the participants’ bodies. These ingredients, by themselves, and in the absence of weight loss, achieved significant changes in their subjective well-being.

The danger of false self-esteem

On the other hand, it’s important to bear in mind that, in many cases, the apparent improvement in self-esteem that an individual obtains by losing weight isn’t real. It’s based on recently obtained approval and external validation.

In fact, they tend to think along these lines: “I’m getting compliments now (at least they’re compliments for me). Others are treating me differently, accepting me, and recognizing me. Now I feel valuable and worthy of appreciation and consideration”.

However, although in the short term, this situation may increase their feelings of well-being, it’s a dangerous situation. Because this is often the time when a considerable fear of gaining weight appears. In fact, behaviors and thoughts typical of an eating disorder can even start to be triggered in the individual. That’s because they fear losing the new-found status that their changed physical image has granted them.

Crying woman in front of the mirror
Reinforcement from others when losing weight can lead to a great fear of gaining more weight.

Appearance doesn’t determine worth

Finally, the answer to whether weight loss improves self-esteem is yes, but perhaps not for the right reasons. That’s because being overweight should only ever be a physical health problem. It shouldn’t condition happiness or the ability to relate. Even more importantly, it shouldn’t affect our perceptions of worth.

In reality, what really influences us is the way we perceive ourselves. Therefore, although we might think that, to feel fulfilled, we need to lose weight and fit into the aesthetic canons, research has found that a reduction of only five-ten percent of body weight is enough to give an individual the self-confidence they lack and improve their psychosocial functioning.

Therefore, the most important thing is to work on our beliefs and perceptions and build solid self-esteem that’s not based on external recognition. So, if you want to lose weight, do it out of love for your body, not out of hate. Remember, good self-esteem should precede physical change, not the other way around.

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  • Lasikiewicz, N., Myrissa, K., Hoyland, A., & Lawton, C. L. (2014). Psychological benefits of weight loss following behavioural and/or dietary weight loss interventions. A systematic research review. Appetite72, 123-137.
  • Vasiljevic, N., Ralevic, S., Kolotkin, R. L., Marinkovic, J., & Jorga, J. (2012). The Relationship Between Weight Loss and Health‐related Quality of Life in a Serbian Population. European Eating Disorders Review20(2), 162-168.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.