Diet Change and Partner Dynamics

Researchers at Ryerson University in Toronto examined the response of significant others to their partners’ dietary changes. They also compared significant others’ reporting of their response to the “changing” partner’s perception of that response.

The researchers conducted interviews with 21 people making dietary changes–most in response to a medical diagnosis–and with their partners or significant others. ‘By examining the perspectives of significant others, we hoped to deepen understanding of the social nature of dietary change,’ Dr. Paisley explains. The partners’ emotional responses varied widely: from co-operation and encouragement to skepticism and anger. In most cases, the significant others described themselves as playing a positive, supportive role. Some facilitated the change by joining in the new diet, or by changing their shopping or cooking habits. Others helped by monitoring the dietary change, finding and sharing information, or providing motivation … However, in some cases, the person trying to make a change felt their partner had a negative impact on their efforts — for example, by eating ‘forbidden’ foods in front of them. In these cases, the significant others did not view their response as negative. In only one case did both partners agree that the significant other played a neutral role.

via Science Daily

Not surprisingly, they found that significant others’ “emotional and behavioral responses to the dietary change appeared to reflect the general dynamics of the relationship.” (Guess that’s a good tip to consider when you’re thinking about diet or any other kind of life change.) The researchers added that responses significant others thought offered indirect support “like not complaining about dietary changes” wasn’t perceived as “meaningful” by their partners compared with direct shows of support like verbal encouragement.

Though the study yielded few, if any, surprises, the research underscores how influential and sometimes nuanced social support (especially within a primary partnership) can be for those who wish to change their diets. Though we certainly can’t control the responses of those we’re close to, it’s unlikely we can just ignore those responses if they prove unhelpful. Inevitably, we key in on their reactions, for better or worse, and then we may not even be getting the signals that our partners think they’re sending. Talk about a potential recipe for conflict….

Maybe the lesson here is to anticipate what kind of support you feel you’ll need and to realistically assess what you think your partner can/will offer. As the researchers say, the general dynamics of the relationship can pretty well help you guess what his/her response will be. It might be helpful to talk with your partner about the changes you’ll be making and the reasoning behind them. If you allow him/her to see the excitement, commitment and interest you have, they’re probably more likely to offer more support or at least less resistance. Work out the details of food shopping, menu planning and cooking ahead of time. Your partner may be wondering (and even skeptical about) how your change will affect him or her if you’re used to eating together. (Tip: You can always show them some MDA recipe ideas and see if they’re interested in partaking with you. Sometimes an appealing picture is worth a thousand words.)

Finally, explore others means of support for your dietary change, even if your partner is totally on board (friends, family members, online boards, cooking groups, etc.). Not only will “diversifying” your support base put less pressure on your relationship, you’ll benefit from the affirmation and perspectives of others who are making changes themselves.

Do your dietary choices dovetail with your partners’/families’? If not, how have you made it work for everyone in your household?

sp3ccylad, MReece Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Dear Mark: Family Dinner

It’s My Neighbors Fault I’m Fat

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15 thoughts on “Diet Change and Partner Dynamics”

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  1. When I had to alter my diet because my baby was allergic to foods I was eating, my dh was not exactly supportive. He wasn’t opposed, but he kept eating things I no longer could.

    Fast forward 6 years later when we find out ds is STILL allergic to dairy and soy and is also allergic to wheat, egg, and malt. Dh was stationed in Korea for a year, so I handled all the changes myself and when he got back it took him a while to be able to remember what ds could and couldn’t eat. Now dh is really good about it, supporting ds positively when ds is down about not being able to eat all the crap everyone else eats lol, and dh will even make ds’s lunch, and fix dinners we all can eat (sometimes we all eat the same thing, sometimes ds’s portion is modified).

    Support from my ILs is limited though. They don’t really seem to get that a food allergy (though not anaphylactic, he’s IgG reactive~~skin and GI issues) is serious business. Even telling MIL that it’s the same part of the immune system that causes autoimmune disorders like RA (which she has) had limited positive impact on them. So we just do our best. I think they try to accomodate just so I won’t get ticked and not show back up with the kids lol.

    I myself am in the process of figuring out if I have food allergies/celiac, and if I do I’m sure it’ll be another round of educating and not a lot of support from extended family.

    Oh, my very bestest friend that I’ve known since 7th grade didn’t even believe me that you can cross-contaminate the peanut butter (by using a knife on wheat bread and then sticking it back in the PB) until she read it online. I’ll never get why my knowledge of something important to me isn’t trustworthy, but read it on the net and it’s fact!

  2. “I’ll never get why my knowledge of something important to me isn’t trustworthy, but read it on the net and it’s fact!”

    I’ll never be able to wrap my mind around that either Nancy- It’s horrible.

    1. I feel exactly the same way… my wife hesitates to believe me until she reads it on facebook or somewhere online. It’s frustrating.

  3. I am grateful every day that my husband does not question my food choices, eats everything I put in front of him, cooks appropriate foods when it’s his turn to make family dinner, and only occasionally eats foods that I consider tempting but unhealthful in front of me.

    Nancy – isn’t it amazing? When the ACCORD study was cancelled (the one that claimed to show that normal blood sugars are bad for diabetics), one of my friends simply would not believe that I knew more about diabetes from my years of dealing with it in my family, reading dozens of books and hundreds of articles over the years, than she did by reading one rather poorly reported newspaper article. Doesn’t your friend think that, you know, maybe you went to some effort to learn about cross-contamination? And even if you were wrong, what’s the big deal about putting the knife in the sink instead of the jar?

  4. I have to say, it’s really nice when you share similar food tastes, restrictions, choices, or values with a partner, and when they support your choices or needs. Food is such a central part of our lives. Or maybe that’s just me and my obsession with delicious things.

    Food Is Love

  5. I had to be on a celiac type diet for a few months due to a reoccurring issue and I have to say I was surprised and taken aback by the support of my boyfriend. He still ate some things I could not but didn’t make a big deal about it. Since we go out to eat often (too often) it made it easier to adjust. And I have religious dietary restrictions that he also took on completely on his own – it makes me feel really great to know I have such a supportive S.O.

    however, I gotta say, when it comes to straight dietary restrictions for weight loss… lets just say we have a half eaten home made cake in the fridge. Oh well, at least we’ll be plump together.

  6. This is probably one of those issues that aren’t even brought up in nutritional counseling, but I’d imagine it is responsible for a majority of healthy diet changes failing. It is a lot easier to make a change when you have support.