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The Divorce Diet: Relationships, Stress, and Emotional Eating

I’ve always been an emotional eater. When I’ve been promoted at work, I want to go out to dinner. When I’m stressed, I want a bag of gummy bears within reach. When I’m sad, my two best friends are Ben and Jerry. 

So when my husband and I divorced last year – about as amicably as is possible -- I was surprised to find that I was often unable to eat. I would pack healthy lunches of favorite foods and find myself incapable of choking down more than a few bites at a time. I’d have to force myself to eat. Given that I’ve been studying eating behaviors for my entire adult life, I knew that not eating was not an option. So, instead I’d “drink my calories” (the exact opposite of what I recommend people do when they are trying to lose weight) to be sure I was getting enough of something resembling nutrients (hey, if there is a lot of milk in the latte, that still counts – right?). But, I didn’t enjoy any of it.

It turns out that I’m not alone in this reaction to stress – and marital divorce. According to some research, divorce is the second most stressful life event one can experience (second only to death of a spouse1). Both men and women tend to gain weight once they get married,2 but divorce typically results in weight loss.3 For some, it may be the prospect of being “back on the market” that encourages weight loss. But, for many of us, it’s simply a reaction to extraordinary stress.

I’ve read others’ reports of the experiences of divorce and how their daily habits changed: less eating, less sleeping, more crying.4 One of the unfortunate things about weight loss following divorce is that women are almost universally praised for this “accomplishment” – even if it comes at an emotional cost or the shedding of pounds leaves them underweight.5 Losing weight should not always be greeted with congratulations; in fact, being underweight puts people at a higher risk of death than does obesity.6 

Of course, some respond to extreme stress by overeating. But, there’s evidence that that doesn’t necessarily make people feel better either. In fact, although we all like to think that comfort foods bring us, well, comfort, new research suggests that is rarely the case.7 In one study conducted at the University of Minnesota, participants watched films that were chosen because they were expected to make people feel sad. Then, those same participants who viewed the films were randomly assigned to receive offers of different types of foods – their “comfort foods” (e.g., chocolate), liked foods, a neutral food (e.g., a granola bar), or no food at all. It turns out that participants’ moods improved no matter what group they were in, suggesting that the passage of time (rather than any particular type of food) was the best anecdote for sadness. 

This study suggests that The Divorce Diet – or any change in eating habits following negative affect or stress -- is not an adaptive or long-term solution for healthy weight management. In fact, writer Stephanie Dolgoff4 suggests that our cultural obsession with appearance and thinness keeps us from focusing on the more important, and often more difficult-to-discuss, things in life. This is consistent with research suggesting that women often claim to want to lose weight to improve their health, but really the perceived appearance benefits are the key motivation behind attempts to lose weight. 8 These types of research findings beg the question, “why do we try to control what we eat when there is some other part of our life that feels out of control?”

Fortunately, as time has passed since my divorce, my appetite has returned. Food is once again a source of pleasure. And, the desire to eat is a reminder that there is always a next meal; a next chapter of life.

Dr. Charlotte Markey - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey's research addresses issues central to both developmental and health psychology. A primary focus of her research is social influences on eating-related behaviors (i.e., eating, dieting, body image) in both parent-child and romantic relationships.


1Holmes T. H., & Rahe R. H. (1967). The Social Readjustment Rating Scale. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 11, 213–221. (link to scale)

2Sarlio-Lähteenkorva, S., Lissau, I., & Lahelma, E. (2006). The social patterning of relative body weight and obesity in Denmark and Finland. The European Journal of Public Health, 16(1), 36-40.

3Sobal, J., Rauschenbach, B., & Frongillo, E. A. (2003). Marital status changes and body weight changes: AUS longitudinal analysis. Social Science and Medicine, 56(7), 1543-1555.

4Dolgoff, S. Please Don't Call This a Revenge Body.

5Markey, C. N. (2014). Smart People Don’t Diet: How the Latest Science Can Help You Lose Weight Permanently. Boston: Da Capo/ Lifelong Books.

6Cao, S., Moineddin, R., Urquia, M. L., Razak, F. H., & Ray, J. G., (2014). J-shapedness: an often missed, often miscalculated relation: the example of weight and mortality. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 68(7), 683-90.

7Wagner, H. S., Ahlstrom, B., Redden, J. P., Vickers, Z., & Mann, T. (2014) The myth of comfort food. Health Psychology, 33, 1552–1557.

8Clarke, L. H. (2002) Older women's perceptions of ideal body weights: the tensions between health and appearance motivations for weight loss. Ageing and Society, 22, 751-773.

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