Body Image and Weight Loss Practices Feature in Master’s Research

The fact that obesity plagues more women than men stirred UKZN graduate Mr Zethembiso Lubisi’s creative juices and he decided to do research into finding possible intervention strategies for the “fatty” problem.

Lubisi completed his MSc in Dietetics in one year after examining the body mass index (BMI), body image and possible factors related to weight loss practices of women undergraduate students on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus.

He was interested in establishing the impact of the issue in the current digital age, which is characterised by an apparent obsession with thinner body sizes resulting in saturation marketing of weight loss practices. He also investigated the growing trend of normalising large body sizes.

The BMI, nutritional knowledge, physical activity, and dietary choices of the research participants were examined to determine what influenced their weight loss practices.

Assessing 316 participants whose average age was 21, Lubisi found that body image perception and the level of body image satisfaction experienced by female students were the most important determinants of whether they engaged in weight loss practices.

Almost half of the participants had a normal BMI, with just over 4% classified as being underweight. Most participants were moderately physically active, had reasonable general knowledge of nutrition, and had attempted to lose weight using methods such as adjusting food portion sizes, exercising, and making positive dietary adjustments, although some had combined healthy practices with unhealthy ones such as the use of weight loss products and skipping meals. Students with good nutritional knowledge perceived themselves to have a thinner body size than those with poor nutritional knowledge.

Around 70% of participants perceived their weight or BMI to be within a healthy range, however more than half had tried to lose weight, and most participants indicated a desire to be thinner than they were. Most students who tried to lose weight had a higher BMI and higher body image dissatisfaction, but students with larger body sizes also made realistic, attainable choices when selecting the body size they wanted.

Since just under half of participants had a BMI within a range considered healthy, Lubisi highlighted that many participants were not aware of their actual BMI and nutritional status but perceived themselves as normal, perceptions not informed by measurements.

‘Students should ensure their idea of their health status is well-informed and not based on an assumption that because they appear “normal”, everything is fine,’ said Lubisi, citing a higher BMI as being a possible indicator of the risk of non-communicable diseases.

‘People should measure their BMI and weight regularly to inform adjustments to diet and physical activity, or to identify underlying causes for weight gain, and should also measure things like cholesterol and blood glucose. A normal BMI is the result of a sustained healthy lifestyle.’

Lubisi’s passion for nutrition was sparked in his final year while based at a public health institution, where he saw the important role nutrition plays in addressing public health challenges, such as the increase in non-communicable diseases including diabetes, hypertension and some cancers.

‘We have a role in addressing those, especially their prevention, but also their treatment and management,’ said Lubisi.

Lubisi currently freelances as a wellness specialist, screening people’s health status and advising them accordingly. He hopes to work in the public sector, a space he finds fulfilling, and believes his master’s degree has equipped him to identify opportunities or gaps in knowledge that he could fill to contribute to the profession. He is currently seeking full-time employment but hopes later to continue with further research and study.

Lubisi attributed his success primarily to his parents, who have provided financial, emotional and spiritual support. He thanked his supervisor, Professor Suna Kassier, for her encouragement, guidance and approachability that brought out the best in him, and credited his co-supervisor, Dr Blessing Mkhwanazi, and staff in UKZN’s Discipline of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, for providing a positive and supportive working environment where he was able to be a part of teaching and learning activities.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied