Thursday, 12 February 2015

Could your partner be bad for your health?

Posted by Amelia Lake

With Valentine’s day approaching, what better time than this to discuss the potential effect that moving in with your loved one could have on your health, and in particular on your eating habits. In 2006 I wrote an article for the nutrition publication Complete Nutrition summarising the evidence around the co-habitation effect. In 2006 I was not co-habiting nor was I a mother - how times have changed! Following on from last week’s Fuse blog and my mini rant about supermarket tills, I can feel a whole body of research emerging about the ‘children effect’ on eating, but for now, back to co-habitation.

My 2006 publication was based on research findings from the UK, North America and Australia which looked at the eating and lifestyle habits of co-habiting heterosexual couples, including married couples. Women eat more unhealthy foods and tend to put on weight when they move in with a male partner. On the other hand, a man’s diet tends to become healthier when he starts co-habiting with a female partner - and her influence has a long-term positive impact.

The reason for the change in dietary habits is that both partners try to please each other during the ‘honeymoon period’ at the start of a co-habiting relationship, by adjusting their routine to suit their partner and eating food that he or she likes.

However, women have the strongest long-term influence over the couple’s diet and lifestyle, mainly because the majority of female partners still assume the traditional role of food shopper and cook. Many of you will now be thinking about your own domestic (bliss) situation and who has made more changes and where. I can reflect on the issues we have, especially around portion size! In those early days of co-habitation, it was hard not to have a second helping as I sat at the table waiting for my much more active and taller husband to finish his first helping.

But this co-habitation thing isn't all bad news, or is it? A recent study of around 4,000 older married and co-habiting couples participating in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, reported a more positive spin. The participants - aged 50 and above - were more likely to make a positive health behaviour change if their partner did the same. There is an important message from this research, that involving partners in behaviour change interventions may help improve outcomes. However, this study didn't explore the negative effects.

So negative effects aside, it’s that time of year for love and romance. Hold that partner tight and let them know what an amazing team you can be for making positive lifestyle changes. When you are working up public policies, or if you are practitioners seeing your patients/clients or designing interventions, don’t forget about the co-habitation effect and the importance of partners.

Happy romancing everyone!

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