When Love Gets in the Stomach’s Way

Eating disorders more likely to occur when partners encourage extreme dieting

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Love makes people do some strange things. It may even affect people's eating and dieting habits. When people want their loved ones to diet, it's a lot more likely to happen.

People who encouraged their partners to engage in unhealthy weight loss habits often led those partners to disordered eating behaviors, a recent study found.

Such unhealthy behaviors included skipping meals, extreme use of diet pills and forced vomiting.

This study showed that people's views of their partners' dieting habits affected their choices to engage in unhealthy dieting.

The more a person was encouraged by a partner to diet in an unhealthy manner, the more likely they were to do so, according to the study's authors.

"Encourage healthy eating behaviors."

Marla Eisenberg, ScD, MPH, from the Division of Adolescent Health and Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, led this study investigating how people’s significant others model or encourage dieting in disordered eating behaviors.

The study included 1,294 young adults with their partners who were about 25 years of age on average. Partners were predominantly the opposite gender.

The participants were originally recruited as students in middle and high schools in Minnesota during the 1998-1999 school year.

About half of the participants were women, of normal weight and were white. A little more than a quarter of the participants were overweight and another 22 percent were obese.

Using an online survey, the researchers asked participants if their significant others dieted or encouraged them to diet. They tracked dieting behaviors related to unhealthy weight control, extreme weight control and binge eating.

The researchers calculated the chances that participants would engage in any of the eating behaviors by gender. Demographics and body mass index, which is a measure of height and weight together, were taken into account.

How partners viewed and felt about extreme dieting was related to how they encouraged each other to have disordered eating behaviors, the researchers found.

More than 40 percent of the participants reported engaging in some unhealthy weight behavior in the previous year. The trend was common among 51 percent of women and about 30 percent of men.

The odds that men and women engaged in some disordered eating behavior was tied to how their partner dieted and what behaviors he or she engaged in. Women were especially likely to have some disordered eating behavior if they were encouraged to diet excessively.

Among the three-quarters of the male participants who said that their partners dieted, about 24 percent said their partner dieted a little, 34 percent said their partner dieted somewhat and 15 percent of the partners dieted a lot. And among the female participants, 46 percent said their partners also dieted.

Binge eating doubled among women if their significant other encouraged dieting “very much” compared to “not at all.”

“These findings indicate that perceived encouragement to diet is more strongly associated with participants' disordered eating behaviors than modeling of dieting behaviors,” the researchers wrote in their report.

The researchers noted that they did not clearly define 'encouragement' to the participants, and the researchers could not determine whether significant others who modeled the dieting behavior affected the participants’ attitudes and behaviors.

According to the researchers, future research should look at how the dieting attitudes affect actual behavior long-term, as well as the significant others’ beliefs and perceptions about dieting themselves to compare to the original participants.

This study, which was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, was published in the July/August issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Review Date: 
August 2, 2013
Last Updated:
August 4, 2013