The notion that women cope with relationship problems or breakups by eating is widespread. Films like Bridget Jones’s Diary perpetuate the stereotype that attacking a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey or devouring a bag of potato chips soothes a broken heart, or at least helps women deal with relationship troubles. But is there evidence that relationship problems actually lead women to eat more? Or is this a myth that Hollywood perpetuates?
In a recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships,1 researchers recruited 21 women, all of whom had no history of eating disorders or food allergies. The women participated in two lunchtime sessions, approximately one month apart. Researchers instructed participants not to eat for at least three hours prior to the first session. Then, during the session, the researchers provided study participants with a bowl of chocolate cookies and said they could eat as many as they wanted.
For half of the sessions, the women first were asked to:
“…think about a relationship you have had in which you have felt like the other person was reluctant to get as close as you would have liked. In this relationship you worried that the other person didn’t really like you, or love you, and you worried that they wouldn’t want to stay with you. In this relationship you wanted to get very close to the other person but you worried that this would scare the other person away.”
The goal of this prompt was to bring about feelings of relationship anxiety. In the other session, the women were asked to think about a time they were secure in a relationship. These primes were counterbalanced, so that half of the women had the security prime in the first session and the anxiety prime in the second; for the other half, the sequence was reversed. This method of counterbalancing is important, because it allowed researchers to be more confident that the thoughts about anxiety, and not another factor, were causing any changes in cookie consumption.
As hypothesized, women ate a few more bites of cookies when they felt anxious about their relationships versus when they felt secure (about 33 calories worth). The researchers note that, over time, constant feelings of anxiety could lead to increased weight gain. In short, feeling unsure or uncertain about their relationships can increase women’s snacking, at least when it comes to chocolate chip cookies. However, since men weren’t tested in this study, these findings don’t speak to whether guys also eat in response to anxiety. PS…No, this research was not funded by Nabisco, the makers of Chips Ahoy!
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1Wilkinson, L. L., Rowe, A. C., & Heath, G. H. (2013). Eating me up inside: Priming attachment security and anxiety, and their effects on snacking. Journal of Personal and Social Relationships, 30, 795-804.
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.