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Food Fight: Relationship Problems Can Make You Fat

A study shows marital stress can produce weight-gain hormones

Fighting with Your Spouse Can Make You Fat

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A stressed women hunts for food in the fridge.

When Lisa Jaremka was a graduate student, she had a theory that rejection and other relationship issues could make people hungry, prompting them to use food — not the healthy kind — as relief for their social isolation.

Now the assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware studies how social stressors affect appetite and diet. She recently collaborated with six other researchers at Ohio State University's College of Medicine to look at how marital stress affected appetites and eating patterns of 43 couples. Participants agreed to attend two 9 ½-hour sessions during which they would eat a meal with their partner, attempt to resolve one or more conflicts in their relationship, answer questions and submit to blood tests and other data collection.

Blood tests taken before the meal as well as 2, 4 and 7 hours afterward showed that hostile arguments often preceded a surge of ghrelin, the "I'm hungry" hormone, but only among those at a healthy weight or overweight. For people who were obese (with a BMI of 30 or higher), there was no significant difference. Hostile arguments were also linked to poor food choices among the same group. The results were consistent, regardless of gender.

The researchers say this study explores previously uncharted territory by exploring the body's ability to regulate appetite after a quarrel with a spouse, and may add to the growing body of evidence that marital stress results in health problems.

But here's the real reward. Knowing whether marital stress is part of a person's life could help clinicians develop more effective interventions for weight gain, said Jaremka. "Right now, it's one-size-fits-all—diet and exercise. I hope this will help us start to tailor interventions. These studies suggest people have difficulty controlling appetite and with specific types of foods." Jaremka points out that comfort foods are the typical choices after an argument. In Western diets, these foods typically have more fat, sugar and/or salt, all of which can cause health problems.

Jaremka looks forward to exploring why interpersonal tension, appetite and dietary patterns are related. Meantime, people can recognize the link between marital stress, fighting, and poor food choices, and consciously substitute healthier fare when they're eating for solace. Not to mention working on communication in their marriage.

Courtesy of Life Reimagined.

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