Learn why people tend to gain or lose weight in relationships and how you can stay on track whether you’re single or partnered.
Your Relationship... With Food
Valentine’s Day is the one day each year dedicated to showering romantic partners with love and affection — especially if that celebration includes wining and dining. It can fill people with love and warm feelings, and lead others to feel badly about themselves if they aren’t partnered.
And let’s not forget that it is a holiday filled with chocolate. So much chocolate!
But whether you’re single, happily partnered, or list “it’s complicated” on your social media profile, it may not surprise you that I’ve yet to meet a client whose struggles with weight aren’t affected by their relationships.
How Relationships Affect Your Diet
Some people gain weight in relationships because they literally “settle down” or adopt their partner’s eating habits. Others lose weight due to increased motivation, for better or worse, to appease their partner’s expectations. And some people are more likely to binge eat to create distance from their partner or to push them away.
Regardless of what patterns emerge, it’s undeniable that our romantic relationships influence our self-image, the way we eat, and ultimately our body weight. But why does this happen, and how can we take back control?
The Impact of Weight, Breakups, and Relationships
For Nina Carras, Personal Trainer and Certified Nutritionist, the connection is clear. “Because we start sharing meals with one another. We are social beings. And when we break bread with one another we get to know one another in an intimate way.”
Nina’s parents married at the age of 21, when her father was just out of the Army. Even though they were “dirt poor,” they had dinner together every evening. There were also family dinners as everyone got to know each other. And Nina’s parents liked to experiment with foods from other cultures.
“My dad said he gained so much weight he couldn’t have bread with dinner anymore and he had to go on a diet,” Nina says. This of course is not the approach everyone would take, but this is what worked for Nina’s dad.
"When you’re living with someone — married or not — it’s easy to adopt that person’s eating preferences, activities, and other habits, because behavior is contagious."
When you’re living with someone — married or not — it’s easy to adopt that person’s eating preferences, activities, and other habits, because behavior is contagious. According to Healthline, in a of heterosexual couples, researchers noted an increased risk for obesity for both men and women who are living together. And a 2011 British survey found that “76% of married men and 63% of married women failed to meet the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity a week. Only 24 and 33% of single men and women, respectively, missed the mark.”
But the reason beneath this is not necessarily gloomy: “happy couples gain weight ... because they are less motivated to maintain their weight when they don’t need to attract a mate.”
While happy couples may naturally gain weight together, bad relationships and breakups can also have a significant impact.
Changes in regular eating habits stemming from the physical and emotional changes from a breakup might leave you with no appetite, or feeling ravenous. But the pendulum can swing back in the other direction as the heart heals, so it’s important to remain mindful of healthy choices to support your path forward as the skies begin to clear.
Redditor smartercat writes: "I just broke up with my boyfriend last night. Over the last few months I have changed a lot. I care more about myself more now physically, mentally and emotionally. I realized I wasn’t happy in my current place and I did something about it. I chose myself for the first time."
Weight loss within a relationship can be both empowering and challenging. No matter how much the bathroom scale fluctuates, changes in your body also show up in how you think about yourself and how you relate to the people around you.
"Weight loss within a relationship can be both empowering and challenging."
“Losing weight can make us healthier and improve the quality of our lives. It can also have an impact on our most intimate relationships,” writes Claire Altschuler in “Will Losing Weight Change Your Relationship?” (Chicago Tribune, August 2, 2018). “Even in small amounts, weight loss affects self-esteem, activity levels and lifestyle — all of which can either improve or stress a marriage and other intimate bonds.”
While losing weight is often positive for people, so much pressure, or the belief that you can only be happy if you lose weight, can also perpetuate the problem. Thus, it’s a delicate balance when promoting weight loss. Although losing weight has been a positive experience for most of my patients who have struggled to lose weight, too much focus, or lack of self-acceptance while on that journey can make matters worse. Further, this weight loss needs to be healthy, as there are some people who confuse positive weight loss with an unhealthy obsession or maladaptive thinking towards food.
When one half of a couple achieves weight loss success but the other does not, relationship issues can result — because weight is a visual indicator that one partner is growing while the other isn’t. A North Carolina University study found that “when one partner lost 30 or more pounds, that had a negative impact on the relationship, causing arguments about food, as well as nagging and resentment.”
But not every relationship impact of weight loss is negative. Physical intimacy also improves — with improved mobility and higher energy levels — along with a boost in self-confidence. Redditor Illusion1993 writes: "My boyfriend, who I am in a long distance relationship with, was here for a couple of days ... I hadn't seen him in person since … I started losing weight. Today I realized that I also acted and felt different. I was much more relaxed and felt way more confident. Sex has become so much more fun, too!" This is not to say that it was the weight loss directly, but that this person in particular was able to feel more free when she felt better about her body.
How to Stay on Track Regardless of Your Relationship Status
It’s no revelation that losing weight and successfully keeping it off for the long-term requires developing better eating habits and regular exercise. However, trying to adopt healthier habits when your partner isn’t interested can make it more difficult to stick to your weight-loss goals.
Experts agree that couples “can help each other adopt this new lifestyle by thinking of themselves as a team and working together to get healthier.” Partners can deepen their relationship connection by exploring healthy new activities together — like yoga or dancing. And a study of more than 3,000 couples concluded that “when one person made a positive lifestyle change, such as increasing physical activity, the other was more likely to follow their lead.”
According to Healthline, “if you’re in a happy relationship, you have to take care of each other’s hearts — and we don’t just mean romantically.”
Besides exercising together, couples can also commit to eating out less, choosing healthier snacks, and keeping routine medical appointments. According to Healthline, “if you’re in a happy relationship, you have to take care of each other’s hearts — and we don’t just mean romantically.”
Even singletons can benefit from a goal buddy when it comes to better eating habits, exercise, and weight loss. Having someone who encourages you toward achieving your goals — better still when they’re invested in reaching their own goals — is important to staying on track.
And don’t forget to eject the baggage, if you can. Weight loss is about so much more than numbers on a scale. Fundamental to success is to “avoid equating weight with appearance, or weight loss with morality. Avoid value judgments” or yourself and others.
It sounds simple, but that doesn’t make it easy.
“Why do we gain weight when we're lonely or sad? Because we eat to self soothe and comfort ourselves,” Nina explains. “Food is the only thing we can be addicted to that we can’t give up. It’s not like cigarettes or alcohol. [We’re] brought up in a culture that tells us to clean our plates and eat what’s in front of us. When we get sick, mom brings soup and it makes us feel better. When [we’re] sad we have ice cream and it somehow makes us feel better. We have a strong association in our brain with pleasure and food.”
In the end, regardless of your relationship status or your Valentine’s Day plans, what’s most important is listening to your body — and your heart — and making the best choices for yourself.