Ditch Body Image Issues by Focusing on Brain Health

A family gathered in the kitchen around healthy snacks.

A Valid Concern

We recently brought up the importance of eating well and exercising in our first Parenting for Academic Success class, and we got an interesting piece of feedback.

One of the parents was concerned that talking to her teenage daughters about diet and exercise could exacerbate their body image insecurities. And she’s not alone. Many parents, especially those with teenage girls are rightly concerned about body-image issues like unrealistic standards, low self-esteem, and eating disorders.

a teenage girl looking at herself in the mirror self-consciously

Even though we were only talking about the academic benefits of healthy habits, this parent’s response made sense since we normally frame eating well and exercising around how they impact your body. It’s hard to imagine talking about these things without referencing one’s appearance. We all know that people work out and avoid junk food in order to lose weight, get fit, and look attractive.

But getting in shape is only one of the many benefits of good nutrition and regular exercise. And it’s far better – and less problematic – to focus exclusively on how these healthy habits benefit your brain.

Focus on Brain Health

fruits, vegetables, and whole grains

Eating lots of vegetables and fruits gives your brain the micronutrients it needs to thrive. Meanwhile, highly processed foods, trans fats, and sugar are all harmful to the brain, so they should be limited or avoided. Nutritious meals that contain a mix of complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, fiber, and protein provide your brain with steady fuel, making it easier to learn and focus. Eating well can even make you feel happier.1

(For a deep dive into all things brain food, click here.)

Likewise, exercise is tremendously good for your brain. It helps you handle stress,2 improves your cognitive performance, and gives you longer mental endurance.3 Exercise is also excellent for your mental health, boosting happiness while reducing depression and anxiety.4 In other words, if you work out, you’ll simply have a better day.

Two people jogging and looking happy

(For a deep dive into all the brain benefits of exercise, click here.)

Leave the Body Out of It

The impact these healthy habits have on your body doesn’t ever need to be mentioned. What’s good for the brain is also good for the body, so if you’re taking care of your brain, your body will naturally benefit too.

This strategy allows parents to talk about the value of eating well and exercising without triggering the body-image issues that so many young people have. And there’s also another enormous benefit to thinking about nutrition and exercise in terms of brain health: motivation.

Brain Health is a Better Motivator

Losing weight and building muscle takes a long time, so if those are your reasons for eating well and exercising, you’ll need a lot of patience and willpower to keep up the regimen. Most of us just aren’t very good at delayed gratification.

But if your motivation to eat well and exercise is to boost your brain health, you’ll get to feel those benefits today, and that immediate reward makes it easier to do it again tomorrow. Indeed, researchers have found that people who exercise to feel good work out more often than people who exercise to look good.5


You can also lead your children toward this lifestyle without ever directly talking to them about it. As all parents of teenagers know, the most well-reasoned and kindly delivered advice can be met with vicious resistance. The alternative strategy is modeling.

a mom doing yoga at home as her toddler tries to copy her moves

When you exercise and choose healthy foods, why do you do it? Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that the most powerful reason is to have a healthier brain.

Live that lifestyle and relish how good you feel when you do, thereby setting an example for your kids to follow. Don’t expect your behavior to immediately rub off on them, but trust that it is having a positive impact.

And when you inevitably falter, that’s an opportunity for modeling too. Don’t get upset about how you look in the mirror or the number on the bathroom scale. Instead, notice how your brain’s performance has slipped – how you think and feel worse – and use that as the motivation to get back on track.

And should you have an opening to speak with your kids (or simply in the presence of your kids) about why you choose to eat well and exercise, don’t talk about getting in shape or losing weight; talk about all the benefits you enjoy when you take good care of your brain.

1 Aubele, Teresa, and Susan Reynolds. “Have You Fed Your Brain Today?” Psychology Today. September 7, 2011.

“Exercise fuels the brain’s stress buffers.” American Psychological Association.

Hospital, Craig. “Exercise and Your Brain.” 

Monroe, Jamison Jr. “Get Moving: The Benefits of Exercise for Teen Mental Health.” US News & World Report. May 28, 2018.

5 Segar, Michelle, Ph.D. No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. AMACOM, 2015.

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