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Bad marriages and bad diets: Research suggests they may be related

If you turn to comfort foods after a spat with your spouse, you're not alone. In fact, a new study suggests that marital strife may actually cause a spike in people's "hunger hormone."

Study sees spike in 'hunger hormone' for some people after arguments in 'distressed' marriages

Fighting with your partner, in the context of a distressed relationship, was found in many cases to be linked to the release of the 'hunger hormone' and bad food choices. (iStock)

If you turn to comfort foods after a spat with your spouse, you're not alone. A new study suggests that marital strife may actually cause a spike in people's "hunger hormone."

Lisa Jaremka is a researcher and assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware. From 2011 to 2013, Jaremka led a team of behavioural scientists at the University of Ohio in trying to find out how spousal scraps affected appetite.

"We were interested in understanding how distressed marriages were related to appetite regulation," she said.

Over two nine-hour days, they studied 43 married couples who were identified as having either "distressed" or "normal" marriages. They fed the couples a meal and asked them to discuss a topic they would typically disagree on. Then, the researchers recorded and studied their sometimes-heated discussions.

Couples slated in the "normal" marriage category resolved their differences in a more productive, positive and emotionally healthy way than those classified as "distressed," the researchers said.

Participants also completed three 24-hour food journals and the participants' body mass index, or BMI, was measured. Blood tests were taken before and after the marital tiffs.

The results suggest that hostile arguments in bad marriages are linked to a spike in ghrelin, the "hunger hormone," in average-sized or overweight people, but not in the obese.

Bad food choices — eating foods high in fat, salt and sugar — were also implicated.

Causality not clear

But researchers aren't yet sure how bad marriages affect bad diets or vice-versa, Jaremka said.

"We have no conclusive evidence that being in this type of marriage and being hostile with your spouse actually causes you to go out and eat these things," she said.

"We just know that they're related and as scientists, we're very careful about making these causal statements. So that's kind of the next step.… Does this actually cause these poor food choices?"

Though the research is still in progress, Jaremka said her current findings — which will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Clinical Psychological Science — can help marriages right now.

"I personally think there's a lot to be gained from just awareness of phenomenon," she said.

"So by being aware that it's possible that the state of your marriage could be related to the foods that you're eating and how hungry you're feeling,… it might help people make healthier food choices."

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