How A Stressful Marriage Affects Your Waistline

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

We all know the secret to weight loss: Eat a little less, and exercise a little more. But it turns out that we may have to add another task to the dietary to-do list: Work on our marriages.

In “wavebreakmedia/ShutterstockMarital stress can make you eat more, study saysTracie Snowder at reports that researchers at the University of Delaware and Ohio State University studied 43 couples, observing their interactions and what was included in their meals. They then tested the subjects’ levels of the hormones ghrelin, which triggers appetite, and leptin, which suppresses appetite. The “high-conflict” couples had higher levels of the hormone ghrelin, the appetite enhancer. There was no such spike in the hormone leptin, the appetite-suppressor. The hostile couples also ate more protein, calories and salt. Interestingly, the results held true for normal weight or overweight, but not obese, couples. (The study’s lead author, Lisa Jaremka, told that the obese couples were making poor diet choices regardless of whether they were in happy marriages or not.)

In other words, a nasty interaction with your husband over whose turn it is to clean up the kitchen might leave you feeling hungry. Other research, according the study, has shown that “comfort food” decreases feelings of loneliness and increases feelings of social connectivity. When we’re feeling isolated or sad, we reach for the a container of fries or a pint of ice cream to soothe ourselves.

And I can tell you that food is soothing when we’re out of sorts. While I don’t have a ton of conflict with my husband, the day-to-day stresses of working and raising small kids leaves me yearning for comfort food in the same way I’d look forward to sitting down during a marathon. Mealtimes, especially a late-night dessert, are little oases of peace and comfort. By the time I cook dinner while refereeing sibling spats; oversee the kids’ meal while squelching whining, crying and complaining; capture a thrashing 2-year-old in order to stuff him into his jammies; brush two sets of teeth; read a book; tuck them in and then fetch the seven glasses of water they need to get through the night, I’m fantasizing about my late-night reward, which comes in the form of a big serving of ice cream.

When you have small kids, every day is a hard day. Even days that, in retrospect, went well (for instance, you had plans that both you and the kids enjoyed; there were no tantrums, breakdowns or gruesome injuries; and they went to bed with a minimum of hand-to-hand combat) have a high level of stress, because parents have to be on high alert at all times. That constant vigilance—making sure they don’t run into the street, choke, menace their little friends or break their necks climbing trees—is hugely stressful even when the bad things don’t happen. Bomb squads don’t get to the end of the day and say, “Well, none of the bombs went off, so that was a totally chill afternoon!” And I imagine the bomb squad might start fantasizing about burgers and milkshakes at around 4 p.m. too.

Toss in a strained marriage, and it’s hard to find any comfort at the end of day that doesn’t come out of a bag of chips or cookies. Jaremka noted that weight loss, and good health in general, focuses on a narrow prescription: diet and exercise. But this study indicates that interventions might need to take a more holistic approach by considering the quality of a dieter’s relationships too. There’s nothing wrong with comfort food or ice cream once in a while. But when it’s regularly taking the place of a comforting marriage, that’s a problem. After all, wouldn’t you rather split the dessert with someone you love?

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