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UCLA psychologists discover couples fight more over dieting than sex

Get support from your partner for dieting.
Get support from your partner for dieting.
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"I thought you were on a diet: You aren't going to eat that entire pizza, are you?" A pair of UCLA psychologists have discovered that comments like that among couples can cause battles that get more heated than any bedroom arguments, reported UCLA on Feb. 3.

Even the most affectionate couples have problems when it comes to discussing their weight, said Thomas Bradbury, a psychology professor in UCLA's College of Letters and Science who co-directs the Relationship Institute at UCLA along with Benjamin Karney, also a UCLA psychology professor and the co-director of the institute.

When they studied thousands of hours of video recordings of married couples talking with each other about their health, the psychologists discovered that "their conversations went awry in more cases than not" when the subject focused on dieting and weight loss.

"The couples struggled to have these conversations, and they were as surprised as we were at how difficult it was," added Karney.

So to help couples work together to win the battle of the bulge rather than get depressed by dueling over diets, the two psychologists have authored a book: "Love Me Slender: How Smart Couples Team Up to Lose Weight, Exercise More, and Stay Healthy Together" (click for details).

Even duos who are deeply in love find that talking about weight loss is the most emotionally charged topic, say the psychologists.

"Even couples who love each other have difficulty doing this effectively," Karney said. "There are skillful ways to talk about physical appearance and attractiveness that may not come naturally to couples; that's why we wrote this book."

And they emphasize that in most cases, both partners can benefit from shifting to mutually healthier lifestyles, as long as they go about it the right way. In order to have a truly healthy lifestyle, experts say four elements are involved: Not smoking, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating enough fruits and vegetables.

But less than 10 percent fulfill those criteria. That's where a spouse can help.

"If we live with our partner, then we share a kitchen with someone else," Bradbury said. "So it makes sense that when one partner goes on a diet, the other partner often loses weight, too."

Why is dieting such a hot button topic for partners?

Weight and appearance are sensitive because they relate to whether each finds the other attractive. There's a difference between offering support and criticizing, and it can be a fine line, say the psychologists.

"It's a delicate balance," Bradbury said. "If your spouse says, 'You look fantastic the way you are,' the partner can think, 'OK, then I'll stay on the couch and eat more chips.'"

But the motivating results from their research: Everything gets better in a relationships when both partners are healthy.

"When we exercise more and eat better, our moods improve," Bradbury said.

"We manage stress better; the quality of our sleep improves and we are mentally sharper; our sexual performance improves, and we become closer and more content in our relationship. After a while, you no longer think of yourself as being on a diet, and you start to identify yourself as a healthy couple."