If you find yourself ripping through a bag of potato chips (or two) after a fight with your significant other, know that you’re not alone. In fact, butting heads with your partner can encourage you to reach for junk food, according to new research from the University of Delaware to be published in Clinical Psychological Science.
To determine whether there was a link between marital distress and poor food choices, the study authors had 43 couples interact during two nine-and-a-half-hour research sessions. During that timeframe, couples were asked to try to work through a relationship issue and/or eat a meal together. Results showed that couples who acted hostilely toward each other throughout these sessions (think: using a rude tone, rolling their eyes, criticizing one another) had more of the hunger-promoting hormone, ghrelin, in their systems, than those who got along pleasantly. Unsurprisingly, the angry group was also more likely to make unhealthy choices, reaching for heavier, junk food alternatives instead.
“People in distressed marriages are making poor quality diet choices, and a person’s diet clearly has many longer-term health consequences,” says lead study author Lisa Jaremka, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Delaware. This also points to Jaremka’s earlier research, which suggests that those facing social isolation (as one would during a fight with a spouse) are more likely to chow down on comfort foods rather than clean eats.
What’s particularly notable, though, is that the reported results only held true for participants who were at a healthy weight or overweight. There was no effect or change in the amount of ghrelin for obese couples engaging in less than friendly relations. “It could be that obese people already have a poor quality diet, so there isn’t much room for the quality of their marriage to push it any further,” says Jaremka. There’s also a chance their hormones were already acting irregular and not responding in the usual ways, she adds.
So, Why Is Emotional Eating So Tempting?
“When you’re feeling sad or hurt, it’s natural to want to ease those feelings as quickly as possible,” says Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, MPH, a dietitian at B Nutritious. “One of the easiest ways to do that is through what you eat,” she adds. Sweet and starchy foods are loaded with sugar, which signals your body to release the feel-good hormone serotonin. “You feel better in the short-term, but that doesn’t last very long because it’s not the cure for your feelings,” says Zeitlin. “That’s why it’s called comfort food” — even though it’s not actually comforting, nor beneficial for your health.
Because the study only shows a mere link, and not causation, Jaremka is working on follow-up research to determine precise causation. Until then, hold off on running into the arms of Ben & Jerry next time you and your S.O. battle it out. Instead, consider these expert-approved strategies on arguing, making up — and avoiding unhealthy foods in the process.
5 Tricks to Fight Fair (and How to Make Good Decisions)
1. Remember the Goal
When you’re in the midst of a verbal smackdown, it can be easy to forget that you two are actually on the same team — and that you’re looking for a common resolution. “A lot of people think a fight is about letting the other person know you’re upset,” says Jane Greer, PhD and author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship. “In reality, a fight is actually about compromising, understanding each other and hopefully becoming a stronger couple in the process.” Ditch the “me vs. you” mindset and instead frame your discussion around figuring out what will make both of you satisfied.
2. Banish Any Triggers
Prevention is the key to stopping post-fight emotional eating. “Everyone has an unhealthy food they reach for when they’re upset,” says Zeitlin. To avoid wolfing down your own bag of Doritos, trick yourself and “make sure you have to leave the house to get [whatever your trigger food is],” she adds. Because when you don’t have easy access, it’s harder to mindlessly indulge in whatever junk that’s laying around (especially if you’ve got kids at home!). Plus, having to go out to satiate any cravings means you’ll give your emotions a chance to subside before digging in — and you may realize you don’t need the junk food after all.
3. Take a Break
When you’re in the middle of a fight that’s heating up, feel free to call a time-out before things completely boil over. “You can say you’d like to come back to the discussion when you’re both calmer,” says Greer. During your break, try squeezing in a workout. “When you exercise, not only do you clear your head, but your body also releases those feel-good hormones, called endorphins,” says Zeitlin. Then, take that post-exercise high (and your sweaty self) back to your partner for further, and perhaps more clear-headed, discussion.
4. Listen Up (and Repeat)
Let’s say you’ve taken our experts’ advice, gone for a run, and are now ready to re-start the conversation. When you come back to the fight, first make sure your S.O. feels heard. “Start by explaining what you think your partner was saying before,” says Greer. Ask if you understood correctly, and take it from there. When it’s your turn to take the stage, go for “I” statements, like “I felt embarrassed when you forgot to show up to dinner with my boss.” These types of sentiments are way less likely to make your partner feel defensive than something like, “How could you forget dinner?
5. Brew a Cup
There’s something about a warm drink that’s undeniably soothing. “The heat and aroma of tea can naturally calm you down,” says Zeitlin, who recommends keeping green tea on hand for its antioxidant powers. And when you feel like you’re doing something healthy for yourself, you’ll be less likely to sabotage that by reaching for something that’s not so good for your body (or your waistline). Bonus: The tea will help fill you up, says Zeitlin, which could result in yes, making better food choices. Consider bringing your partner a mugful as a peace offering — to start, at least.