“We think the way couples interact may have a lot to do with the kind of food they’re eating,” said Janice Kiecolt Glaser, PhD of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “We want to know if a bad diet can make a stressful relationship even worse.”
To find out, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser is partnering with her husband and fellow scientist Ronald Glaser, PhD, Director of Ohio State’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research. Together, the Glasers have authored hundreds of articles, books and studies - many exploring how stress affects the human body. In this case, the extra ingredient is food.
“We all experience a certain level of stress in our relationships,” said Ronald Glaser, “but we want to better understand what role food plays in that.”
Specifically, researchers are looking at foods high in saturated fats, like the burgers, fries and chicken strips, often found on the menus of fast food restaurants.
Here’s how the study works: couples who volunteer are brought to a lab, where they are fed two meals; one high in saturated fats, the other using healthier ingredients. During the visit, nurses take several blood samples from each and researchers measure their blood for certain stress markers.
Then things get interesting when the couple is encouraged to discuss sensitive topics, like money or the annoying habits of their partners. That usually gets stress levels up or, in scientific terms, leads to an increase in stress proteins known as cytokines.
“It’s perfectly normal for those stress markers to go up during a heated discussion,” said Ronald Glaser, “but, after a while they are supposed to come back down. If they don’t, and you have chronic elevations of these cytokines, that’s when you have health risks.”
In other words, an argument with your spouse might get your stress level up, but it might just be the high-fat food in your diet that keeps it there, which could be dangerous.
“We’re talking an increased risk for a lot of diseases, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and even osteoporosis,” said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser. “These can be very serious conditions.”
It was the concept that you-are-what-you-eat-as-a-couple that caught the eye of Tammy and Sotero Gebara. They have been married for more than twenty years, and are the busy parents of twin teenage girls and a six year old daughter.
“We have children that are involved in many activities,” said Tammy, “so we are just very, very busy every night of the week.” As a result, “we don’t take a lot of time to prepare food at home,” said Sotero. “We constantly eat on the run and find ourselves at a lot of drive-thrus.”
While the Gebaras say their faith in God and their trust in each other has kept their marriage strong for more than two decades, they can certainly see how their diets might play a role in their moods.
“You hear people all the time say that your diet affects the way you feel,” said Tammy. “It makes sense that the type of food you eat can actually affect how irritable you are. It’s a very logical connection.”
It may be a logical, but for the next few months researchers will be recruiting couples to see if it’s scientific, too.
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