The Ripple Effect of Weight Loss in Marriage

Family Health

By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

There’s no sugar-coating the obesity epidemic in America.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) most recent data says that more than one-third (36.5%) of U.S. adults are obese. And being obese significantly increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and even certain types of cancer.

There is also credible evidence that if your spouse is obese, the likelihood you will be obese increases by 37%.

Now a new study suggests that if one spouse follows a weight loss program, the other spouse who follows no program at all will still likely lose some weight. According to this study, there is  “evidence that weight loss can spread within couples, a phenomenon referred to as a ripple effect.”

This ripple effect has been widely studied. Some researchers even found that more than 65% of spouses of bariatric (weight loss) surgery patients lost weight in the first year following surgery.

Most of us have probably heard of Weight Watchers. It is a popular, nationwide evidence-based weight loss program. So to further test the ripple effect, researchers of the new study designed a trial comparing weight loss in married couples where:

  • One spouse was following Weight Watchers while the other was not (untreated).
  • One spouse was assigned to a self-guided control group while the other was left untreated.

“Understanding if ripple effects occur in this real-world setting will provide a more complete picture of the true reach of lifestyle-based weight loss on untreated family members,” according to the study.

The study recruited cohabitating couples (both heterosexual and same-sex). One member of each couple (the treated participant) had to be interested in doing a weight loss program. The other member of each couple was just simply required to attend assessments for tracking progress. About 93% of the couples were married.

Eligibility requirements were:

  • 25 to 70 years old.
  • Body Mass Index (BMI) between 27 and 40 in treated participants. (A BMI between 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight, 30 or above is considered obese and a healthy BMI falls within the range of 18.5 to 24.9).
  • BMI of 25 or higher in untreated participants.

Participants could not be on any medications for weight loss or be planning to or had undergone weight loss surgery. They could also not be pregnant or have any orthopedic issues that would prevent them from working out.

Despite some of the participants having higher BMIs, many of them were overall healthy. They had no uncontrolled hypertension or history of coronary heart disease, cancer within the past five years, chronic gastrointestinal disease, etc.

Some of the treated participants who had diabetes or any other existing medical conditions had to get written consent from their doctor to participate.

A total of 130 couples ended up being involved in the study.

The treated participants who followed Weight Watchers did so for six months. Benefits of this program included in-person meetings, digital tools (self-monitoring of intake, activity and weight) and 24/7 online chat with Weight Watchers staff.

And treated participants of the self-guided control group received a four-page handout with basic information regarding healthy eating, activity and weight control strategies.

Weight loss between the treated and untreated groups was assessed at three and six months.

“At 3 months, participants in the Weight Watchers program on average lost significantly more weight than those in the control group: 7.4 vs 4.3 pounds, or 3.6% vs 2.1% of their initial weight,” according to this report.

“Their untreated spouses had lost about 3.2 pounds, or 1.5% of their initial weight. However, at 6 months, participants in the Weight Watchers group had not lost significantly more weight than those in the control group: 9.5 vs 6.8 pounds or 4.5% vs 3.2% of their initial weight.

“Unexpectedly, weight losses did not differ between untreated spouses of WW and SG participants, suggesting that ripple effects occur in both more and less structured approaches. When comparing our findings to the broader ripple effect literature, the mean weight losses we observed in untreated spouses in both the WW [Weight Watchers] and SG [Self-Guided] conditions were consistent with the 2% to 3% weight losses observed in untreated spouses of individuals undergoing bariatric surgery or participating in lifestyle-based programs at academic medical centers,” the study says.

But this does not mean that you can put all of the responsibility of losing weight on your spouse and hope that his or her good behavior will just rub off on you. The main takeaway is that both you and your spouse need to work together as a team and make getting healthy a shared responsibility.

Activities like meal prepping and cooking at home are all fun activities you can do with your spouse. And there are so many spices and herbs you can utilize to make healthy foods less boring and more tasty. Together, you can also learn more about specific nutrients that may help with weight loss goals.

This type of ripple effect is similar to involving children in healthy meal prepping at home,  because it will make them more likely to make healthier food choices outside of the house. Ripple effects are also evident when you have a strong community support system, because this type of relationship can help you be your healthiest self.

Finally, we cannot stress enough the importance of getting a comprehensive nutrient test. If you are not nutritionally balanced, this may slow down your weight loss and even slow you down in the gym!

If you discover you have nutrient deficiencies and imbalances, work with a competent healthcare professional to tweak your diet, take good quality supplements or even consider the use of liposomal technology.

Finally, lest we forget, most of us repeated that vow requiring us to be with our spouse “for better or for worse,” and “in sickness and in health” until we are parted by death. What better way to honor those marriage vows than to lose some weight with our spouses!  

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.


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