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One of the main goals of positive psychology is to increase well-being in all aspects of a person’s life (see the Wheel of Life). Well-being is measured and identified through different factors such as motivational, relational, emotional, and more.
Some of the factors that play into someone’s physical well-being include diet, exercise, and body image.
In this article, we pave the way for a new branch of positive psychology: positive nutrition. We do this by examining the relationship between nutrition and well-being.
Self-Esteem and Well-being
Many experiments involving nutrition and exercise focus on the self-esteem of their participants. While self-esteem seems related to well-being – as feeling good about oneself supposedly leads to higher levels of well-being – it is still important to verify if there is an actual relationship between the two and what it looks like.
Barendregt et al. (2016) set out to explore this by conducting a longitudinal study on the two factors and confirmed that not only was there a relationship between self-esteem and well-being, but that high levels of self-esteem caused higher levels of overall well-being and vice-versa.
Nutrition and Self-esteem in Children
There is plenty of literature showing that nutrition can affect self-esteem, particularly in children and adolescents. For example, a program promoting and educating minority children on healthy living found that it could increase self-esteem in those children (Wong et al., 2015).
That is, simply teaching minority children about the way nutrition works is enough to increase how they feel about their physical appearance, their social standing, and their overall global self-worth.
On the other hand, it has been found that children who show low levels of self-esteem are less likely to finish weight loss programs (Zeller et al., 2004). This could be due, in part, to the stigma that obese children face, which causes them to feel that weight loss is pointless (Cahnman, 1968). Of course, if stigma is affecting nutritional outcomes, it seems safe to say that self-esteem is playing a role.
This shows that not only can nutrition-based interventions affect levels of self-esteem for the better, but also that self-esteem levels can modulate the effectiveness of nutrition-based interventions.
The above findings further indicate that high nutrition levels are associated with high levels of self-esteem, while low levels of self-esteem are associated with low nutrition levels.
Overall, this relationship indicates that nutrition and self-esteem are closely intertwined and the bidirectional nature of this effect suggests that it may be less likely that another confounding variable is causing this association.
Nutrition and Self-esteem in Adults
While the aforementioned studies focus on nutrition in children, there is similar evidence of a relationship between self-esteem and nutrition in adults.
For example, just like children, Mexican adults with diabetes who had low levels of self-esteem were less likely to follow diet plans (Rivera-Hernandez, 2013). The author also claimed that low self-esteem may have affected diabetic adults’ poor compliance with exercise plans, though the results are less clear.
This indicates that for both adults and children, high levels of self-esteem can lead to better nutritional outcomes, and as we’ve seen, high levels of nutrition and nutritional knowledge can lead to higher self-esteem.
“In both adults and children, high levels of self-esteem can lead to better nutritional outcomes”
As for adults with other diseases, a review focusing on the lives of cancer patients found that these patients showed mental benefits from physical exercise (Navigante & Morgado, 2016). The authors explained that this was due to the fact that physical exercise improves skeletal muscle function and that this leads to more independence and higher levels of well-being.
The authors also underscored the importance of personalized exercise plans for individual cancer patients, as some benefited from just a few minutes of light exercise a day. If cancer patients can stand to benefit from physical exercise and increased independence, it is likely that other people with other physical illnesses could also reap benefits to their well-being from physical exercise.
Introducing Positive Nutrition
Taken together, these findings certainly indicate a relationship between nutrition (that is, aspects such as diet and exercise) and self-esteem and well-being, indicating that positive nutrition as a focus should be added to the field of positive psychology.
If the intention of positive psychology is to use psychological interventions to increase well-being, the intention of positive nutrition would be to use nutritional interventions to increase well-being.
Places and Spaces for Nutritional Interventions
As much of the nutritional research focuses on children, positive nutrition-based interventions could first be focused on children, to teach them important nutritional lessons early in life and ensure a lifetime of increased self-esteem and well-being.
Parents influence what children eat, whether or not they exercise, and teach by example. Along with being helpful for parents themselves, these nutritional interventions would give parents the opportunity to instill healthy habits at critical points in childhood and adolescence. Altogether, nutritional interventions could provide important benefits to a child’s physical and mental development.
A focus on children’s nutrition could naturally extend to school, where children spend roughly half of their waking hours for most of the year. School lunches and recess time would be opportunities for positive nutrition interventions, as what kids eat and how they exercise during these times could significantly affect their self-esteem and their school performance and motivation.
Schools have the added ability to both educate children about nutrition and give them a chance to put these teachings into practice in a way that few other spaces have.
Of course, children are not the only ones who could benefit from positive nutrition interventions. Adults also stand to gain from nutritional teachings, and just as schools should start incorporating positive nutrition into their daily schedules, so should workplaces.
This could include educating workers about dietary choices as well as offering them ways to stretch their legs for a few moments while at work. This would be beneficial to both organizations and their employees, as a recent review found that workers with higher self-esteem engage in fewer “counterproductive work behaviors,” leading them to work more efficiently. (Whelpley & McDaniel, 2016)
Positive nutrition interventions could also be employed in nursing homes, prisons, sports facilities, and pretty much any public (or even private) space where people spend their time.
“This is especially true when you consider that every single person has a body to take care of, just as every person has a mind to take care of. All people need to eat, so educating people about the mental aspects behind their dietary choices is crucial for any program looking to increase holistic well-being.”
A Take Home Message
If the goal of positive psychology is to investigate ways to increase well-being, positive nutrition should become a key aspect of the field. This is evidenced by the research demonstrating that nutritional aspects of day-to-day life (such as diet and exercise) have been shown to increase self-esteem, and self-esteem has been shown to be positively correlated with overall well-being.
Since nutrition clearly affects well-being, it falls under the domain of positive psychology to create opportunities for healthy bodies and minds to thrive.
Where do you see positive nutrition interventions being of potential benefit? We’d love to hear your opinions in the comment section below!
Barendregt, C.S., van der Laan, A.M., Bongers, I.L., van Nieuwenhuizen, C. (2016). Longitudinal Relation Between General Well-Being and Self-Esteem: Testing Differences for Adolescents Admitted to Secure Residential Care and After Discharge. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 60(16), 1836-1855. doi:10.1177/0306624X15588773
Cahnman, W.J. (1968). The Stigma of Obesity. The Sociological Quarterly, 9(3), 283-299. doi: 10.1111/j.1533-8525.1968.tb01121.x
Paxton, S.J., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Hannan, P.J., Eisenberg, M.E. (2006) Body Dissatisfaction Prospectively Predicts Depressive Mood and Low Self-Esteem in Adolescent Girls and Boys. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 35(4), 539-549. doi:10.1207/s15374424jccp3504_5
Rivera-Hernandez, M. (2014) Depression, self-esteem, diabetes care and self-care behaviors among middle-ages and older Mexicans. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, 105, 70-78. doi:10.1016/j.diabres.2014.04.017
The PERMA model. (n.a). Positive Psychology Melbourne.
Whelpley, C.E., McDaniel, M.A. (2016) Self-esteem and counterproductive work behaviors: a systematic review. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 31(4), 850-863. doi:10.1108/JMP-01-2014-0008
Wong, W.W., Ortiz, C.L., Stuff, J.E., Mikhail, C., Lathan, D., Moore, L.A., Alejandro, M.E., Butte, N.F., O’Brian Smith, E. (2015). A Community-based Healthy Living Promotion Program Improved Self-esteem among Minority Children. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, 63(1), 106-112. doi:10.1097/MPG.0000000000001088
Zeller, M., Kirk, S., Claytor, R., Khoury, P., Grieme, J., Santangelo, M., Daniels, S. (2004). Predictors of attrition from a pediatric weight management program. The Journal of Pediatrics, 144(4), 466-470. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2003.12.032