The arguments were nothing new for the 43
couples who participated in a recent study of how marital stress affects
appetite and eating patterns. Hostile exchanges were all too frequent
for them, especially when certain topics came up.
This time, though, the arguments produced new insight for researchers, including Lisa Jaremka, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences
at the University of Delaware, who has been studying how social
stressors affect appetite and diet. She worked with six collaborators at
Ohio State University's College of Medicine.
The study, just published by the journal Clinical Psychological Science,
showed that hostile arguments between married partners often preceded a
surge of the "I'm hungry" hormone known as ghrelin, but only among
those who were at a healthy weight or overweight (not obese, as defined
by the body mass index).
Hostile arguments also were linked to poor food choices among the same group.
That doesn't mean arguments or hostility caused the hunger or poor
dietary choices, Jaremka said, just that there was a correlation – and a
fairly strong one.
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 results were consistent, regardless of gender.
The study broke new ground 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
It also gave Jaremka the opportunity to test a theory she had during
graduate school that rejection and other relational difficulties could
make people hungry, perhaps prompting 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
Knowing whether those factors are part of a person's life could help
clinicians develop more effective interventions for weight gain, she
"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
Participants in this study agreed to attend two sessions, each 9 1/2
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 agree to blood tests and other data collection.
Typical diets were analyzed and participants were screened for mood
disorders and sleep quality. Their age, height and weight were recorded
and their body mass was calculated.
Hormone levels were tested at four intervals, once before the meal,
and three times after it – at two, four and seven hours after.
One couple did not show up for the second session, Jaremka said, but
all others followed through. Many people have an intrinsic interest in
relationships, she said, and want to have a better understanding of
them, especially their own.
The study raises many questions for future research. Why are these
things – interpersonal tension, appetite, dietary patterns – related?
When does this correlation between interpersonal tension and poor diet
start? Is there a difference if marital tension is short-lived or
chronic? Why is the appetite of those who are obese relatively
unaffected? What happens when similar tests are made in different
She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology at SUNY University at
Buffalo and a doctorate in social psychology at the University of
California, Santa Barbara. After working in postdoctoral positions at
Ohio State University, she joined the UD faculty last year.
The full study is available online and will be printed in a future issue of the Clinical Psychological Science journal.