Politicians and public health are always trying to control the obesity epidemic by legislating things that range from controlling sugar in your diet, e.g., soda in NYC, to humiliating us into watching less TV. That being said there is one contributor to obesity that until now has gone quietly under the radar: Being in a bad relationship.
Being in a bad relationship can affect more than just your mental health. According to a large study carried out in the U.K., people who are unhappy in their current intimate relationship are more likely to gain weight, and in turn, have an increased risk of developing obesity related diseases like diabetes.
This was not your usual study in that the participants were tested over a period of years, reporting their relationship problems one time and then regularly monitored over the subsequent decades. In this study, the researchers controlled statistically for the health of the participants at their first time of testing to eliminate effects of being heavier, or more at risk due to these other factors. So what I am saying is that this was a very thorough study.
The study was one of a series of follow-ups of an investigation begun in 1985, and has produced a wealth of data showing how psychosocial factors, i.e., involving both psychological and social aspects related to health. It provides a better understanding of the mind-body connection in health and illness. We know from the study that, for example, people working unhappily in lower income occupations experience more psychological stress which, in turn, increases their risk of dying from stress-related diseases.
It only took four questions to determine how much conflict participants faced in their closest relationship. Surprisingly, the simple questions were enough to predict the extent of the ensuing weight gain among a majority of the participants. All four questions concerned the person with whom they had the closest relationship and all were rated on a 4-point scale, No. 4 indicating most conflict. Take a moment now and see how you would rate your closest partner on these questions using the last 12 months as your reference point. Ready?
Question 1. How much did this person cause you worry, problems, and stress?
Question 2. How much would you have liked to have confided more in this person?
Question 3. How much did talking to this person make things worse?
Question 4. How much would you have liked more practical help with major issues from this person?
The participants rated their close relationships on these questions and researchers compared them against their body mass index (BMI) BMI is a way to judge a person’s degree of obesity. Most of the participants also completed physical exams during at least one of the study phases. By the time the study was over, the research team had data across 11 years on approximately 8,000 participants.
University of You might imagine that there would be all sorts of complications in predicting a person’s weight over such a long time period. People pass through lots of life changes over 20 years, and almost any of them could contribute to middle-aged creep. However, with the extensive data set, the researchers were able to rule out most of the possible complicating factors such as social class, gender, health behavior, and psychological disorders. Additionally, they used multiple time points to measure participants’ relationship problems. Everyone knows that the way you feel about your relationship on a Monday may be different than your feelings on a Saturday. By taking more than one rating into account, the research team made a more stable measure of the peoples’ feelings toward his or her partner.
Here are the people…Most of the participants were married and about half of them worked at mid-level occupations. They tended to have reasonably good health habits; half had never smoked and they averaged about three hours of moderate physical activity a week. Over half ate fruits and vegetables on a daily basis and three-quarters had no history of a mental disorder. On the relationship conflict measure, they averaged a score of just under No. 3.
The findings indeed showed that the people most likely to suffer the ill effects on their weight from problems in their relationships were initially overweight at the start of the study. Normal weight individuals showed no effect of conflict, and there were no protective effects of good relationships on weight loss. People at the highest risk for gaining weight in a bad relationships, then, were ones already at risk of possible health effects from their elevated BMIs.
So how do you connect bad relationships to continued weight gain? One way is through the physiological effect of constant stress on your bodily systems, making you more likely to gain weight. Being chronically unhappy in your intimate relationship also causes you to feel more negatively about your own life, leading you to feel depressed and overwhelmed. Not only will your body be functioning at less than its peak ability, but you’ll be more likely to turn to food as a way to seek comfort. Research on unhappily married people shows that they tend to go for high-fat and high-carb “comfort food” in an effort to feel better and reduce their stress and anxiety. Indeed, high calorie foods like these may make people feel better at the time, but over the long run, they put you more at risk for further weight gain.
The people who were in an unhappy relationship were less likely to feel like exercising, which would then place them at risk of becoming obese.
So, if you’re gaining weight but don’t know why, these findings suggest that you might want to check the pulse of your relationship. It’s not a matter of love or even sex that causes the need to let out your belt when things don’t go well. Rather, it’s being able to confide in your partner, feel that your partner will help you with what you need done, and even more importantly, to feel like your partner can help you alleviate your personal stress.
The next time you step on the scale and don’t like the number you read, then don’t reach for the diet pills; they’re probably not good for you anyway. Instead, try focusing on how you and your partner help each other cope with the stress in your life and you’ll feel happier and, in the long run, be healthier too.
If you have any thoughts on this article, send me a note, [email protected] and I would be happy to talk for a few minutes.
SPEAK WITH A LIFE COACH IN BATON ROUGE
Frank Hopkins is a life coach in Baton Rouge who is certified as a Professional Coach (CPC) by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Frank has helped numerous people to go through emotional change in a way that is positively transformative.