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Marital Strife + Depression = Increased Obesity Risk

Marital Strife + Depression = Increased Obesity Risk

Researchers believe a combination of marital hostility and a history of depression increase the risk for obesity in adults.

The provocative new research suggests social factors play a role in the way the body processes high-fat food.

Investigators discovered that men and women with a history of depression — whose arguments with spouses were especially heated —  showed several potential metabolic problems after eating a high-fat meal.

They burned fewer calories and had higher levels of insulin and abnormal spikes of triglycerides, a form of fat in the blood, after eating a heavy meal as compared to others without the risk factors.

Research scientists believe the combination of depression and marital hostility resulted in a reduced calorie consumption of 118 calories, an amount that translates to weight gain of up to 12 pounds in a year.

Moreover, the multiple problems can increase the risk for heart disease and diabetes.

“These findings not only identify how chronic stressors can lead to obesity, but also point to how important it is to treat mood disorders. Interventions for mental health clearly could benefit physical health as well,” said Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, Ph.D., lead author of the study and Distinguished University Professor at the Ohio State University College of Medicine.

“Our results probably underestimate the health risks because the effects of only one meal were analyzed. Most people eat every four to five hours, and often dine with their spouses,” said Kiecolt-Glaser.

“Meals provide prime opportunities for ongoing disagreements in a troubled marriage, so there could be a longstanding pattern of metabolic damage stemming from hostility and depression.”

For the study, researchers recruited 43 healthy couples, ages 24 to 61, who had been married for at least three years.

As part of the study, participants completed a range of questionnaires that included assessments of marital satisfaction, past mood disorders, and depressive symptoms.

During the two daylong study visits, all participants ate eggs, turkey sausage, biscuits, and gravy that totaled 930 calories and 60 grams of fat.

The meal was designed to mimic common fast-food options, and matches the calories and fat in a Burger King double whopper with cheese or a Big Mac and medium fries at McDonald’s.

Two hours later, the couples were asked to discuss and try to resolve one or more issues that researchers had previously judged to be most likely to produce conflict. Common topics were money, communication, and in-laws.

Researchers left the room during these videotaped discussions, and later categorized the interactions as psychological abuse, distress-maintaining conversations, hostility, or withdrawal.

After the meals, participants’ energy expenditure — or calories burned by converting food to energy — was tested for 20 minutes of every hour for the next seven hours.

Researchers obtained this data by using equipment that measured inhaled and exhaled airflow of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Blood samples were drawn several times after the meals to measure glucose, insulin, and triglycerides and compare them to baseline levels.

Participants with both a mood disorder history and a more hostile marriage burned an average of 31 fewer calories per hour and had an average of 12 percent more insulin in the blood than low-hostility participants in the first measurement after the meal.

The insulin level did not match other participants’ lower levels until two hours after eating. Insulin contributes to the storage of fat.

The peak in triglycerides in the high-hostility and depressed participants four hours after eating exceeded all others’ levels.

High levels of triglycerides are considered a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Source: Ohio State University

Marital Strife + Depression = Increased Obesity Risk

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Marital Strife + Depression = Increased Obesity Risk. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 23 Oct 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.