Hostile arguments between married partners are often followed by a surge of the hunger hormone ghrelin, as well as poor food choices, according to new research published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
The study, which involved 43 couples, looked at how marital stress affects appetite and eating patterns.
The findings don’t necessarily mean that arguments or hostility caused the hunger or poor dietary choices, says lead researcher Lisa Jaremka, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware. But there is a strong correlation.
Jaremka has been studying how social stressors affect appetite and diet for some time. For the new study, she collaborated with six researchers at Ohio State University’s College of Medicine to focus on fighting couples.
The study entered new territory by exploring the body’s ability to regulate appetite after an argument with a spouse, and may help researchers understand how marital difficulties ultimately result in health problems.
It also gave Jaremka the opportunity to test a theory she had during graduate school that rejection and other relationship problems could make people hungry, perhaps leading them to seek relief from social isolation through food, usually not healthy food.
“Comfort food,” at least in Westernized diets, typically has more fat, sugar, and/or salt, she said, all of which can cause health problems.
Knowing whether those factors are part of a person’s life could help clinicians develop more effective interventions for weight gain, she said.
“Right now, it’s one-size-fits-all — diet and exercise,” she said. “I hope this will help us start to tailor interventions. These studies suggest people have difficulty controlling appetite and with specific types of foods…. A personalized approach would be beneficial in the long run.”
For the study, subjects agreed to attend two sessions, each nine and half hours long, in which they would be with their partner, eat a meal together, try to resolve one or more conflicts in their relationship, respond to questions, and participate in blood tests and other data collection.
Typical diets were analyzed and subjects were screened for mood disorders and sleep quality. Their age, height, and weight were recorded and their body mass was calculated.
Hormone levels were analyzed at four intervals, once before the meal, and three times after it — at two, four, and seven hours after.
Hostile couples had significantly higher amounts of the appetite-triggering hormone after arguments if they were at a healthy weight or in the overweight category, while those who were obese — with BMI 30 or higher — showed no significant difference.
No such correlations were found with leptin, the appetite-suppressing hormone. The findings were consistent, regardless of gender.
Source: University of Delaware