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For Better Or For Worse? How Your Spouse Impacts Your Diet

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When you say "I do," you are not just signing up for a lifetime of togetherness -- you're also, apparently, signing up for shared eating habits.

Researchers analyzed the eating patterns of more than 3,000 participants in the ongoing Framingham Heart Study to determine whether social ties influence eating behaviors and exactly how they do so. They considered the role that spouses, friends, brothers and sisters played over the course of 10 years. Overall, the analysis, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, found that couples had the greatest impact on one another's dietary patterns.

"The hypothesis is that your eating behavior is going to be affected by those around you," said Paul F. Jacques, D.Sc., director of the Nutritional Epidemiology Program at Tufts University and one of the study's authors.

"With spouses, it has a lot to do with the stronger shared environment," he added. "One person is probably preparing food for the other frequently."

But it wasn't just couples who influenced one another; friends also appeared to share certain eating patterns, particularly when it came to regular consumption of alcohol and snacks. (For purposes of analysis, the researchers grouped the individuals into seven distinct patterns, including meat and soda eaters, sweets eaters and those who avoid caffeine.)

Indeed, the researchers found that in terms of influential eating types, the "alcohol and snacks" pattern reigned supreme, influence-wise. Across all of the social relationship types, it was the most likely eating pattern to be shared.

According to the authors, one reason for this is that drinking and snacking tend to be more social in nature.

"Items in this food pattern are easy to share and often require less of a time commitment relative to meals," they write. "In addition, in American society, alcohol is culturally associated with sociability."

Conversely, the light eating pattern -- which consisted of lower average food consumption throughout the week, even of healthier foods like vegetables, fruits and grains -- was the least likely to be shared across the various social relationships.

Jessica Crandall, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietitian Association, said that research like this is important for people to be aware of so that they can monitor their own eating patterns. Other recent studies have found that marriage influences weight gain in women.

Crandall explained that when she begins working with clients looking to lose weight, one of the first things she stresses is the importance of having friends, family and particularly a spouse on board. While this might not necessarily mean they adopt your new eating habits, they should be cognizant of, say, ripping open a bag of chips in front of you, or bringing you a muffin as a thoughtful gesture.

Crandall said her clients get the support they are looking for much of the time. One couple, she said, not only changed what they ate, they got off the couch and started square and swing dancing.

But about half of the time, she estimated, her clients don't get that support, which can make it difficult to change eating habits given the crucial role relationships can play.

"You get very accustomed to being in that environment of 'let's go grab a bite, or a coffee, or a drink," Crandall said. "When you try to change what your typical habits are, that can impact your spouse or friends, and they may not be ready to change."

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