Let’s face it, the holidays are fun but they can be a bit stressful. In addition to finding that perfect gift for everyone on your list, there’s also the decorating, the shopping, the baking and the obligatory family get-togethers.
Disagreements about who to see and who not to see, who to visit and not to visit, where to go or whether to just stay home can take a huge toll on the strongest of relationships.
Now there’s another reason to keep holiday stress from boiling over. A recent study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science showed that hostilities between married partners led to a surge in the hunger hormone ghrelin and that those hostile arguments often resulted in poor food choices.
What’s even more surprising: the phenomenon occurred among those who were at a healthy weight or overweight (but not obese, as defined by body mass index or BMI). The results were consistent regardless of gender.
That could be a real problem during the holidays what with the volume of food available and the mindset that we’ve been given permission to enjoy every single savory bite of as much food as we can pack into our stomachs.
The study broke new ground by exploring the body’s ability to regulate appetite after an argument with a spouse (or significant other) and may help explain how marital difficulties ultimately result in health problems, a key research interest of one of the study’s collaborators, Lisa Jaremka, Ph.D., associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware.
It also gave Jaremka the opportunity to test a theory she’d developed in graduate school, namely, that relationship problems make people hungry, prompting them to seek relief from so-called comfort foods that contain unhealthy amounts of fat, sugar and/or salt.
“Being in a distressed marriage and getting into a fight with your spouse makes you feel disconnected from them, makes you feel that they don’t care for you, that they don’t love you and this is a very powerful feeling that people want to avoid, and I think that food is one way to do that,” says Jaremka who worked on the study with six colleagues at Ohio State University’s College of Medicine.
Jaremka stresses that the results of the study do not prove that hostility or arguments cause hunger or poor dietary choices, just that there is a correlation—albeit a fairly strong one.
Indeed, the findings raise a variety of questions for future research. How and why are these factors—interpersonal tension, appetite, dietary patterns—related? When does the association between interpersonal tension and poor dietary choices begin? Why are the dietary habits of obese individuals unaffected? Is there a difference between short-term and chronic marital stress? Are there situational differences?
But for now Jaremka feels the findings offer, “just knowing that this is a phenomenon is important because then people might be able to recognize that they’re feeling unloved by their spouse and that they’re having these cravings,” she says. “And that can go a long way toward helping people take the first step in changing their behavior and not giving in to those cravings.”