After an incredibly stressful day at work or super emotionally charged event, there’s absolutely nothing better than reaching for the heftiest candy bar, bowl of mac n’ cheese, or any comfort food we can get our hands on. We’ve all been guilty of this food fix at some point or another, but is there actually science behind this type of emotional eating or is it all in our heads? Recent research has found that there may be a physiological reason for this reaction, and relationship problems in particular can be a major diet-buster.
According to a study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, there is a clear link between marital distress and poor food choices.
The study from the University of Delaware observed 43 couples, looking to find how marital stress affects appetite and eating patterns. One of the researchers, Lisa Jaremka, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, has been studying how social stressors affect diet for some time. But this study took her previous research even further, by specifically examining stress with married couples.
For the study, participants attended two sessions, each nine and a half hours long. During the sessions, they would spend time with their partner and attempt to solve some sort of problem in their relationship. These couples were later given questionnaires and partook in bloods tests. The researchers also collected data on participants’ diets, mood disorders, and sleep quality.
While the study was in progress, the participants’ hormone levels were tested. First before the meal, at two, four, and then seven hours later.
While observing these 43 couples, researchers found that hostile arguments often preceded a boost in the “hunger hormone,” also known as ghrelin. However, this was only the case with couples who were at a healthy weight or overweight, not for couples who were categorized as obese. The same groups not only became hungry, but also made unhealthy food choices after a dispute.
Just as your algebra teacher taught you many times — correlation does not equal causation. Jaremka reiterated this sentiment when it came to her findings. She points out that the hunger and poor food choices aren’t necessarily a result of the fights themselves, but the researchers did find an extremely strong correlation between the events.
What’s important to glean from this study is that the stress in your marriage could not only hurt you emotionally, but also physically. After a fight, our bodies can become hungry and rarely for a healthy snack. Think about it, what do we consider “comfort foods”? Fatty, fried, sugary, salty, and overall unhealthy options. Since poor food choices like these also harm your mood and well-being—this can spiral into a vicious cycle of an unhealthy diet and unhappy marriage.
However, Jaremka believes these new findings could be extremely beneficial to individuals whose diets are affected by issues with their partner. “Right now, it’s one-size-fits-all — diet and exercise,” she said. “I hope this will help us start to tailor interventions. These studies suggest people have difficulty controlling appetite and with specific types of foods…. A personalized approach would be beneficial in the long run.”