Uncovering the Science Behind Self-Compassion and Weight Management

May 2, 2024 Posted by AHW Endowment

A person hugs herself, showing herself self compassion.

Society today is constantly faced with unrealistic body ideals and social pressures that can lead to negative self-talk, poor body image, and unhealthy relationships with food and weight. While we can’t necessarily avoid our exposure to those influences, we can counteract the effect they have on our mental, physical, and emotional health. Practicing self-compassion can be a powerful solution to these harmful patterns, and help us to embrace a more beneficial approach to our health and weight management.

Dr. Alexander BuhkIn a recent episode of the Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin Endowment’s (AHW’s) monthly livestream, Coffee Conversations with Scientists, Alexander Buhk, PhD, bariatric psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), discussed the connection between self-compassion and weight management and tools to help love yourself at any size.

Understanding Self-Compassion

Each person’s relationship with their body is deeply personal and shaped by their unique life experiences. However, three primary components go into how we all see and feel about ourselves: how we talk to ourselves (self-talk); body image, or the way we think about how we look; and social pressures and the impact and influences of the world around us.

Self-compassion, as Dr. Buhk explained, is how we treat ourselves. “It’s treating ourselves with kindness and nonjudgmental acceptance—especially in response to challenges and perceived failures—while simultaneously recognizing that what we’re going through is part of being a human being.”

According to Dr. Buhk, most practitioners and researchers agree that self-compassion is comprised of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness:

  • Self-kindness involves being patient and understanding with ourselves, rather than engaging in harsh self-criticism.
  • Common humanity recognizes that everyone experiences difficulties and imperfections–we are not alone in our struggles.
  • Mindfulness encourages us to be present and accepting of our thoughts and emotions without judgment.

Post-it notes covered with affirmations: people can build self-compassion with affirmations like these.

Self-Criticism vs. Self-Compassion

The way we think about and treat ourselves influences our ability to lose weight and can play a role in weight gain as well. Self-criticism is the tendency to engage in negative self-talk or negative critical thinking, often focusing on our weaknesses, shortcomings, or perceived failures. This behavior can activate the body’s threat system, also known as the Fight-or-Flight response, which is a reaction to danger, driven by the sympathetic nervous system, and intended to help us survive stressful or life-threatening situations.

When our threat system is active for a prolonged time, the body can experience negative effects like depression and anxiety and impact our stress management. Dr. Buhk shared that self-criticism has also been tied to eating-disordered behaviors, interpersonal issues, and perfectionist tendencies, and can interfere with our ability to adopt healthy behaviors that could support healthy weight loss or weight management.

Alternatively, self-compassion can not only deactivate the body’s threat system, but also activate our care system, releasing oxytocin (sometimes called the love hormone) that supports relationship bonding and building and connection with others. This response has a beneficial impact on both our physical and emotional health.

Practicing self-compassion also affects heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of the variation in time between heartbeats and how well the body internally regulates and responds to stress. People who engage in self-compassion have a higher ability to manage stress than those who do not, and a person’s ability to manage stress influences their behaviors.

Self-Compassion and Weight Management

With the sheer volume and frequency of advertisements and media displaying “ideal” bodies, it’s understandable and common for people to begin engaging in negative self-talk and self-criticism. However, intentionally practicing and cultivating self-compassion is a valuable way to minimize the negative effects of self-criticism on our mental and physical health.

To cultivate self-compassion, Dr. Buhk recommends practices like positive affirmations (e.g., "I am worthy," "I will show myself kindness right now"), writing these affirmations down and placing them where we'll see them regularly, and considering how we would speak to a close friend experiencing similar struggles. He also highlighted the importance of mindful eating—truly savoring and experiencing our food–as a form of self-compassionate behavior.

While some might suggest that there is a fine line between self-compassion and complacency, especially in the context of health and weight management, Dr. Buhk explained that self-compassion is about giving ourselves the internal resources to better care for others and pursue our goals. When it comes to weight management, he emphasized that obesity is a complex disease with many contributing factors beyond just diet and exercise, and self-compassion can help reduce the stigma and shame that often accompany struggles with weight.

Learn More About Self-Compassion

Dr. Buhk recommends Dr. Kristin Neff’s website, SelfCompassion.org as a valuable resource for those interested in learning more about self-compassion and incorporating it into their lives, as well as Dr. Neff’s various books on the topic.

To hear more from Dr. Buhk and the science behind self-compassion and weight management, tune into the Coffee Conversations with Scientists episode here: