In a study of 43 couples, researchers showed a connection between marital stress and poor food choices. Here’s why your marriage may be affecting your appetite and eating patterns, and could be the real cause behind packing on those extra pounds.

The Marital Study

Forty-three couples having various BMI’s (healthy weight, overweight, and very overweight) were selected to participate in this study. These couples frequently had hostile exchanges which generally involved certain topics.

The couples agreed to participate for two days (each 9 1/2 hours long). They ate a meal together and tried to resolve one or more conflicts in their marriage. Hormones were tested at four different times of the day — once before the meal and three times after it — at 2, 4, and 7 hours after.

What the Marital Arguments Produced

Researchers at the University of Delaware and Ohio State University College of Medicine observed a strong correlation in healthy weight and overweight subjects, but it was not seen in couples who were heavier (having a BMI of 30 or higher).

They found that hostile marital arguments caused a surge in ghrelin — the “I’m hungry” hormone only in the healthy weight and overweight couples. Known as the appetite increaser, ghrelin is primarily released in the stomach and signals your brain when it’s time to eat.

The appetite hormone, leptin, was also monitored, but levels did not rise. Leptin inhibits hunger, that is, it tells your brain you’ve had enough to eat.

Food to Ease Discomfort  

As ghrelin levels rose, distressed partners (both husband and wife) sought food that was typically higher in fat, sugar and/or salt — typically poorer quality food, but what many might consider “comfort food”.

NOTE: Arguments or underlying hostility do not cause hunger or poor food choices, but there is a pretty significant link between the two. 

Typical Comfort Foods for Women   

Women typically seek sugary foods for emotional comfort.

  • Chocolate
  • Ice cream
  • Cookies, cakes, candy

Typical Comfort Foods for Men

Men find comfort in salty, fatty foods.

Men typically seek heavier, fatty, and salty foods to ease discomfort.

  • Chips
  • Steak
  • Pizza
  • Casseroles (e.g., mac ’n cheese, lasagna)

What Do the Results Mean?

Published in Clinical Psychological Science, the results of this study are helpful in understanding how marital difficulties can lead to unhealthy weight and the resultant health problems. 

Marital Discomfort and Stressors
Could you be reaching out to food to relieve the discomfort and social stressors you feel from your marriage, such as:

  • Hostility
  • Tension
  • Rejection, and/or
  • Social isolation

Are you having difficulty controlling your appetite with specific types of food?
If so, a “diet” that focuses on restriction, restraint and relentless self-control is NOT the answer. A diet is a temporary fix to quickly lose weight and to inevitably regain because it’s not addressing what’s driving you to eat the way you do.

One Size Does NOT Fit All
This study exemplifies that there is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” weight loss program. To lose weight, you need a personalized intervention and treatment plan that underscores a lifetime of good nutrition, exercise and stress management. Find a clinician who is empathetic to your physiological triggers.

Karen Owoc logoKaren’s Fit Tip:  It is not enough to delve into your psyche and psychosocial status and amp up your need to lose weight and live disease-free. 
It’s essential that you understand the relationship between you and your spouse — what could be the fundamental key to your successful weight loss.


L. M. Jaremka, M. A. Belury, R. R. Andridge, M. E. Lindgren, D. Habash, W. B. Malarkey, J. K. Kiecolt-Glaser. Novel Links Between Troubled Marriages and Appetite Regulation: Marital Distress, Ghrelin, and Diet Quality. Clinical Psychological Science, 2015; DOI: 10.1177/2167702615593714

Karen Owoc

Karen Owoc is a certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist specializing in cardiopulmonary rehabilitation and lifestyle medicine. Her science-based approach to longevity, nutrition, and muscle health has made her the go-to source for health seekers and medical professionals alike. Karen's best-selling book on functional longevity, "Athletes in Aprons: The Nutrition Playbook to Break 100", and her transformative perspective have mended many minds, hearts, and spirits.

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1 Comment

  1. Karen,
    Thank you for the information! It sure helped me throughout the years. By the way, are you still teaching physical therapy in San Ramon? Whenever I am visiting my doctors there at the Norris Canyon Medical Facilities, I sometimes thought of stopping by to visit and see you and the physical therapy team.
    Thanks Again,
    Joe Concepcion

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