Happy Relationships and the Development of Obesity – Is there a behavioral connection???

By Heather Hamilton, PhD.  ©2022BreakThrough!
Background

Relationships definitively influence how and what we eat. Our association with food and environment (neural pathways of preferences) begins at birth and continues to develop with exposure and reinforcement. Growing up we may recall that Wednesday night was casserole with green beans (fed to the dog), or that Fridays were usually burgers with mac and cheese. Thinking back to places we visited – grandma’s house, Disneyland, or a vacation to Mexico – we have memories of food; fresh biscuits, oversized lollipops, Mai-tai’s at sunset. We associate a significant part of our life memories, and experiences with food and beverage. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon to think about or plan where we want to go based on the availability of food or alcohol. Movie theaters are associated with popcorn, candy, and soda; ballgames with beer and brats; a picnic with wine and cheese. We may even return to a favorite place (or country) simply because of the food.

“We eat in the good times”

“We eat in the bad times”

Sounds like lyrics to a really old song right? A lot’s already been written on the topic of dysfunctional relationship dynamics and negative health outcomes. It’s established that sustained relationship dis(stress), related anxiety, depression, trauma and emotional instability will in time, affect our physical health and sense of well-being. Less however is written about the development of obesity within relationships that are healthy and free of significant distress or anxiety. Yet, it’s clear from the escalating rates of adult obesity that even for happy couples, there are relationship dynamics that contribute to unhealthy eating and weight gain.

Culture

Season, region, and culture significantly influence family gatherings and our expectations for certain foods. In the South for example, fried chicken, potato salad, and buttered corn take center stage at summer gatherings. For Italian families it might be mama’s osso bucco or lasagna, and garlic bread. The Irish set forth hearty stews and shepherd’s pie; the Brits, bangers and mash with gravy. From Bavarian cultures we get Wiener schnitzel, brats and strudel; the French provide hors d’ oeuvres and pastries without parallel. From the Far East we get rich curries and dishes served with rice. There are hundreds of similar examples, but the point here is that every culture has traditions that bring people together to enjoy and feast on rich food. For generations past, celebratory eating was acceptable since these types of feasts were relatively rare. Unfortunately, multi-course meals once reserved for special occasions are now consumed regularly. Our average weight has increased because we’re simply consuming too much of what we enjoy, too often.

Roles & Food in Relationships

Sometimes we’re our own worst enemy when it comes to implementing dietary changes at home. We may derive a sense of well-being and happiness in preparing food for family events. Part of our identity as a “good” parent or provider may be enmeshed with feeding our family and earning their praise. That means those of us who love to cook, may need to reevaluate our need for positive feedback as it relates to preparing and serving food. We can easily allow our emotional satisfaction with a meal (or event) to depend on how much our guests ate and their expressions of appreciation. If we have a reputation for being a good cook or host, we may have a tendency to want to outdo our last efforts, despite exceeding everyone’s expectations to begin with. We may even be annoyed when one of our guests refuses food or eats small portions of just one or two dishes. Feelings may get hurt when someone “forgets” their package of leftovers. One of my patients recently shared she was afraid that if she didn’t eat everything at family gatherings she wouldn’t be invited back. At the time, she was looking forward to visiting family for a week, but dreading the five pounds she’d likely wear home.

Enabling Sabotages Healthy Eating

In happy relationships, “enabling” is the relationship behavior that can quickly undermine the best efforts at healthy eating. With some concerted effort, it’s fairly easy to make “home” a safe eating environment. Where couples tend to tread dangerous ground is outside the home; restaurants, work or school related functions, family gatherings, community gatherings, and most certainly while on vacation.

We may be perfectly happy having a protein shake for breakfast until our partner talks about picking up cinnamon rolls from the farmer’s market. There are countless examples of enabling behaviors we engage in to put ourselves or others at ease. Enabling others is a way we subconsciously process our own desires or feelings of impulsivity, guilt of shame, but in the end, enabling is detrimental to both parties. This is particularly true when we consider how thought patterns, defense mechanisms, and biases influence our eating behaviors. If you suddenly crave fresh baked peanut butter cookies, do you ask your partner or children if they want some and then bake them? If you’re tired and your partner suggests eating out, are you more likely to do so knowing it’s unlikely you’ll stick to healthy choices?

When couples enroll in change and the desire to make healthy choices they have to be clear that certain relationship behaviors such as enabling are detrimental and be willing to address them. In the BreakThrough! program one of our “go-to” solutions couples can use counter impulsive enabling is to ask: DO WE NEED THIS or DO WE WANT THIS?

 

We hope you’ve enjoyed this short article. If the BreakThrough! team can help your clients address emotional & psychological reasons why they eat the way they do – please don’t hesitate to reach out!