Is Diet Undermining Your Relationship?

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

Among the common causes of spousal strife, one factor that rarely gets attention is food. The fact is that what you eat can undermine a relationship or marriage.

The subject was brought to my attention by health writer Martin Zucker, who works with me on the content on this website. Back in 1979, he wrote an article for a preventive medicine magazine about how bad diet can contribute to bad marriages. Bad diet back then pretty much meant the same thing it does today: a predominance of processed foods, excess refined carbohydrates, and excess sugar.

The standard American diet (SAD), in short. 

SAD is indeed sad, an eating style that continues to drain health and vigor on a widespread scale, and not just in the US, but increasingly in other parts of the world as well. Bad diet causes chemical imbalances in the body and can serve as a cause of irritability, upset, and arguments that can harm relationships.

Here’s what the experts quoted in the 1979 article had to say:

Psychiatrist David Hawkins, M.D., Ph.D., (1927-2012), medical director of the North Nassau Mental Health Center in Manhasset, N.Y. (1956-1980), and collaborator with Linus Pauling in the founding of Orthomolecular Psychiatry:

“The poorer the nutritional status, the greater the likelihood of marital disorder. We estimate that about 50 percent of the couples who apply to us have serious nutritional problems. Sometimes nutrition is the total cause of their problem and other times nutritional deficiencies aggravate existing conditions.”

“We did an analysis and found that of the 90 couples who came to us for counseling in 1974, 45 had a nutritional disorder that was a primary or secondary cause of their marital difficulties. In the 20 years our center has been operating, we have had probably 400 couples in for marital counseling. I’d guess about half of them have had significant nutritional disorders.”

Emanuel Cheraskin, M.D., (1916-2001), chairman of the department of oral medicine at the University of Alabama/Birmingham, wrote more than 700 scientific papers during a long career. He was author of the 1976 bestseller Psychodietetics: Food as the Key to Emotional Health. One of his favorite sayings was: “Man is a food-dependent creature. If you don’t feed him, he will die. If you feed him improperly, part of him will die”:

“We have made a strong case for the relationship between food and mood, and obviously one of the factors that dictates marital relationships is mood. When you have two people in different moods, you are in deep trouble. When you have two people who are tigers, who are nervous, anxious, then each little thing gets to be a bigger thing. 

“There is no question about the existence of a relationship between food and marriage success and failures. The whole emphasis in marriage problems has been on the psychological, and very little spent on the nutritional aspect of marriage. We have done a whole series of husband and wife studies, ranging from examination of enzyme levels to general complaints. We have shown that men who have lots of psychological complaints are living with women who have lots of psychological complaints, and men with few psychological complaints are living with women who have few psychological complaints.”

“The chemical characteristics of a couple are not the same when they marry. It takes about 15 years and then a husband and wife have similar chemistry. We figure it must have something to do with the 15,000 meals they eat together. The couple’s behavioral problems are similar and they are similar because of their lifestyle, the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat.”

Mary Jane Hungerford, Ph.D., director of the Santa Barbara branch of the American Institute of Family Relations:

“We found nutritional involvement in perhaps 90 percent of our cases, and in 75 percent of them it was a major factor. A typical American diet, a lifetime of eating processed sugar and flour, can cause problems. Almost all of my clients complain of fatigue. And fatigue is one of the first signs of malnutrition and inadequate protein. It certainly is the basis of a great many fights.”

The Hypoglycemia Connection

The experts in the 1979 article pointed to unrecognized hypoglycemia as a common denominator in the food-mood-relationship equation. Hypoglycemia means low blood sugar, a typical sequence that follows excessive intake of sugar and refined carbs. The scenario here is that the sweet stuff is broken down in the intestines into glucose, that is, blood sugar. Initially, the blood sugar rises (hyperglycemia), causing the pancreas to produce insulin, which brings the level down and often far down, resulting in irritability and fatigue. Consistently high glucose, of course, is synonymous with type 2 diabetes, a serious disease that develops when your pancreas isn’t able to keep up and make enough insulin to keep your blood glucose levels normal.

According to Dr. Hawkins:

“Unrecognized hypoglycemia in either or both mates, and often in both because they eat alike, can actually cause divorce. I would say that hypoglycemia is, in fact, the most common cause of marital disorder among nutritionally problematic couples. We have seen a lot of people who were on the verge of divorce, and that’s all that was wrong with them. The pancreas just can’t handle all that refined sugar. And certainly not a hundred or more pounds a year which is what we consume. (Note: in 2014, we ate about 130 pounds a year!) For many people, the pancreas just won’t be up to the job after a while.”

“Hypoglycemia diminishes a person’s energy level. You have irritability, mood change, and fatigue, and when one or more of the parties have this, the quality of the marriage is undermined. The ability to function is decreased. You may have disinterest in sex, keeping the house in order, or disinterest in social life.”

“In one typical case we saw an apathetic, irritable woman who had lost interest in the house. This caused arguments and resentments, and interference in the couple’s sex life. The husband began looking elsewhere. He had hypoglycemia, too, which caused an explosive temper. His relationship with his girlfriend was not much better than the one with his wife. The wife was getting her pickup from candy and soda, and was overweight. He was drinking a lot. They both wanted a divorce.”

“We took them both off sugar and sweets. We counseled him about the alcoholism. We put them both on a megavitamin program. Their marital problems pretty much disappeared. That was eight years ago and today they are still doing fine.”

“That’s a rather common story. Before any of our couples have marriage counseling, we do a nutritional analysis and a glucose tolerance test. We feel that psychotherapy, without first biochemically screening a patient, is a big waste of time. We pick up a lot of simple disorders this way that are easy to fix.”

Dr. Hungerford reported this situation:

“One couple came in with a typical hypoglycemia story. She was severely depressed, had gigantic anxiety attacks, would shake all over, and was afraid to leave the house.”

“Her husband was very fuzzyheaded and accident prone. They were having friction over their inability to establish policies in rearing their only daughter.”

“I looked at their diet and found the usual deficiencies. They drank too much coffee with too much sugar, for one thing. Coffee by itself stimulates the adrenal glands. This panics the pancreas and causes too much insulin to be released. The blood sugar level is knocked down. In addition, the husband was into eating candy and encouraging the daughter to do the same. When we suggested a better diet, without any candy, white sugar, or white flour in the house, the situation improved dramatically.”

Stress Causes Nutrient Depletion

People seeking marriage counseling – today as well as back then – are obviously in distress. The trouble might stem from raising a child, from an infidelity problem, from money or from sex problems.

“All these things are intense stress, and stress increases the need for nutrients in a way that very few people understand,” explained Dr. Hungerford.

“Stressed people run a deficit in nutrients, particularly in protein. Vitamin C, zinc, and the B complex vitamins are factors specific in the stress process. They need to be in supply in the body to help us cope with stress. I do many diet analyses and find that just these very factors most needed for handling stress are the ones my clients are the most severely deficient in.”

Many couples, said Dr. Hawkins, are in “less than optimal health due to inadequate nutrition. By shortchanging their bodies of necessary nutrients they have a diminished ability to cope with stress and life situations. If you are biochemically healthy, you are contributing to well-being and therefore to a better marriage.”

True Back Then and True Today

I certainly relate to this eye-opening article. There is no doubt that when people eat mostly junk food and sugar, it can put a chemical stress on the marriage. Looking back, I can see some signs of this in my own life. When I was an interventional cardiologist, working under very stressful conditions in the hospital, I was eating a high-carbohydrate diet. At the time I believed in the fat theory of heart disease. I avoided meat and fat, and ate a lot of pasta, rice, and bread, and got very heavy. The stress at work was enormous, but eating all those carbs definitely made it worse. 

I was often short-tempered and irritable. When the phone would ring incessantly, I would be bothered. Knowing what I know now I wish I had been on some kind of a modified Mediterranean diet, and eaten good fat with plenty of protein, and tried to reduce the disturbing effect of carbs, the up and down glucose levels, and their disturbing impact on brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin.  

After reading the 1979 article, I found a 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which researchers found that hunger-induced low blood sugar may contribute to poor self-control and greater aggression in married couples.  

The researchers, from Ohio State University, the University of Kentucky, and University of North Carolina, explained that glucose is used to make chemicals that provide energy for brain function. They discovered that a low glucose level “can undermine self-control because people have insufficient energy to overcome challenges and unwanted impulses,” and added that “numerous studies have found a relationship between low glucose levels and poor self-control. When glucose levels are low, people have more difficulty controlling their attention, regulating their emotions, and overriding their aggressive impulses. Some evidence suggests that low glucose levels might even increase the risk of violent criminal behavior, including spousal abuse.” 

Low blood sugar can be induced by hunger, skipping meals, routine consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugar, poor diet, and alcohol. Any of these factors can thus affect your physical health, putting stress on different body systems, and can also affect your emotional well-being and relationship.

If you think you are suffering from a diet related mood disorder, please contact a nutritionally oriented medical professional who can help you establish a plan to replenish your nutrient stores and improve your dietary choices. Don’t continue to suffer on the mood roller coaster; there is help out there. Not only will you benefit immensely, but so will your loved ones.   


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