Pizza…argument…heartburn. Sound familiar? Some fascinating research currently underway at The Ohio State University may explain why we feel worse when we argue with our spouses after an unhealthy meal. In the study, couples are asked to attend two-day long research sessions where blood samples are taken after the pairs consume identical meals that are either high or low in saturated fat. After eating, the couples are asked to discuss a stressful subject in their relationship, such as money, in-laws, or annoying habits.
The scientists expect to see what previous research has found—that the meals high in saturated fat resulted in a greater increase in stress hormones and more inflammation during heated discussions. In other words, eating greasy Chinese is bad enough, but eating it before talking about bills may inflate your body’s unhealthy response.
Couples and eating is one of my favorite topics because it was the subject of my first book several years ago. In my private practice I’ve worked with couples with all sorts of problematic food conflicts, including: when one partner plays food cop and polices what the other eats; when one shows love by feeding the other too much or too often; when they disagree about how to feed their kids or pets; fight about when or what to eat; or when one sabotages the other’s healthy efforts. Being out of sync with your partner when it comes to food is a big deal, because eating is a major part of spending time together.
If you and your significant other find yourselves on different eating wavelengths, here are a few strategies that may help:
Reinvent Your Couple Time
After getting married or moving in together eating can become central to how you spend time with your partner—pizza and Netflix, popcorn at the movies, going out to dinner—and couples tend to become eating partners-in-crime, indulging or overindulging together as recreation. It makes sense, because most of us are raised to bond over food, and eating is tied to intimacy, but settling into an unhealthy lifestyle doesn’t have to be your fate, if you work together to reverse the pattern. Start talking about how to spend your weekends and evenings in ways that don’t revolve around food.
Make a No-Food Gifts Pact
Showing affection through food is encouraged in our society, but it can lead to overeating or eating foods you don’t really want, out of a sense of obligation. Whether it’s for a special occasion or just because, talk about alternatives, from a simple note or thoughtful card to a five-minute shoulder rub.
Create a List of Healthy Go-tos
Break the unhealthy rut by finding restaurants and take-out places where you can both get meals you enjoy (even if just yours is healthy!). When you’re tired and hungry after a long day, having a list at the ready can mean the difference between eating a meal that leaves you feeling lethargic or one that keeps you on a healthy track.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.