Infamous Obesity Villains – Marriage and Divorce


A very prevalent and active obesity villain is interpersonal stress, particularly the kind that originates with familial discord. Childhood Obesity News has discussed parent-child relationships extensively, but by no means definitively. In this area of life, unfortunately, there is always more to say, because of the seemingly infinite number of ways in which people sabotage even their nearest and dearest.

Synergy happens when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Two or more conditions or forces are at work, and their combined efforts add up to more than they logically should. Sometimes synergy accomplishes an unexpectedly good result, but often it goes the other way. A study from Ohio State University’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research found that when a history of depression is mixed with a hostile marital relationship, the total effect can be very harmful.

When these factors combine, they can increase an adult’s obesity risk by altering how the body processes foods high in fat, increasing the likelihood of metabolic syndrome, and thus the likelihood of the person developing heart disease and diabetes. Fewer calories are burned. More insulin is produced, which contributes to fat storage. Triglyceride levels rise, and that particular marker is considered a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. That is what appears to be happening with spouses who suffer from depression and who customarily get into heated arguments. The study’s lead author, Dr. Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, says:

Most people eat every four to five hours, and often dine with their spouses. Meals provide prime opportunities for ongoing disagreements in a troubled marriage, so there could be a longstanding pattern of metabolic damage stemming from hostility and depression.

The research team reckoned that such negative synergy could translate into as much as 12 extra pounds per year. A report by Emily Caldwell goes into great detail about how the research on 43 couples was conducted, with extensive measurements and blood testing and the consumption of high-calorie, fat-intensive meals such as might be found at a fast-food franchise. The husbands and wives were given opportunities to discuss hot topics like in-laws, money, and communication or the lack thereof. Caldwell writes:

Researchers left the room during these videotaped discussions, and later categorized the interactions as psychological abuse, distress-maintaining conversations, hostility or withdrawal. After the meals, participants’ energy expenditure—or calories burned by converting food to energy—was tested for 20 minutes of every hour for the next seven hours.

The takeaway is the importance of treating mental and emotional disorders, because they so often lead to physical problems.

Obesity Triggers Vary by Gender

A University of Houston study looked at the types of family stress that are most likely to result in obese adolescents. The data came from 4,700 young people of both sexes, and showed that male and female teens react differently to family-generated emotional stress. The three distinct stressors they looked at were family disruption, financial stress, and maternal poor health. It appears that girls respond badly to poverty and “broken family” situations, and react by becoming overweight or obese. The same outcome in boys is much more frequently caused by a mother’s chronic illness or other health deficit.

Since school-based anti-obesity programs that concentrate on diet and exercise result in only short-term benefits, recognition of these gender differences could help to design better programs. Of course, there is never enough help to go around, but ideally a lot of good could be done by aiding families who need financial assistance, better individual mental health, and family counseling.

The Big D: Divorce and Obesity

If family counseling fails and divorce looms on the horizon, keep an eye on the kids, because chances are they will turn for consolation to sugar-sweetened beverages. In the pleasure sweepstakes, a cold fizzy sweet drink delivers a lot of bang for the buck. This disturbing news comes from San Francisco State University. With care, this dangerous proclivity can be avoided.

Researchers were surprised to find that the more a divorced family maintained routines such as eating a regular dinner together or making time for family activities, the less likely children were to drink sugary beverages.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Study Shows How Troubled Marriage, Depression History Promote Obesity,”, 10/20/14
Source: “Stress and obesity: Your family can make you fat,”, 04/06/15
Source: “Divorce implicated in sugary beverage consumption,” Science, 03/03/15
Image by Tony Guyton

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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