06/02/2013 10:34 PM IST | Updated 08/04/2013 10:42 AM IST

Is a Toxic Relationship the Source of Your Weight Gain?

The cycle of overeating and obesity can be broken. Those trapped in it know what it feels like, but putting our heads in the ground and wishing it would go away will not work -- anybody who has lost weight only to gain it all back and then some knows what I mean.

In my experience, toxic relationship is one of the leading causes of chronic anxiety that can lead to overeating in men. The stress of being stuck in an unhappy relationship seems to amplify on a daily basis. One study in the Journal of Family Issues found that "men who gained weight were more likely to report marital problems than men who lost weight." What makes matters worse is the guilt that follows because you don't want to admit relationship failure. This guilt builds up and adds to the anxiety that you already have. Eventually you find an escape, which for many of us is food. As we make the wrong food choices in ever increasing quantities, we gain weight and our guilt mounts, thus perpetuating the obesity cycle.

Toxic relationships exist in many forms. Perhaps you have a girlfriend or a boyfriend that is just not compatible with you. Perhaps you are married to someone that is not your ideal match. You may have a difficult relationship with your son or daughter where neither of you understand each other. You may even be in an abusive relationship. Whether it is verbally, mentally or even physically abusive, they all set the stage for a downward spiral.

Generally these toxic relationships that I see in my practice pose a significant impediment to losing weight and keeping it off. Despite all efforts to change eating habits and increase exercise, it just isn't that simple. The key to getting healthy when you're in a bad relationship is to resolve the stressor by either breaking off the relationship or coming to some common ground with your partner. However, if you are not aware that this is root of your weight problem, then you will never completely conquer your weight issues.

I have consistently observed in my practice a different type of toxic relationship; one where one of my gay patients is involved in a heterosexual marriage or relationship because they are unable to "come out" and disclose their true feelings. This situation leads to deep resentment and tension with their heterosexual partner. Guilt and anxiety soon follow, as well as a long-term addiction to highly palatable and calorie-dense foods; for many, this is their release.

I have noticed that this situation happens mostly to gay men; since the underlying caveat is that the affected individual is unable to disclose his gender preferences for fear of reprisal from family, friends and employers. It is unfortunate that our society has created such a stigma when it comes to gender identity that this leads to severe emotional and physical injury in the form of chronic stress and obesity.

I disclose to you that this is only an observation that I have made in my practice, and is difficult to quantify how often this is in play in the greater population. Unfortunately, there is not much data on this particular problem in scientific literature; it has either not been identified as an issue before or there are constraints in obtaining data. Either way, I feel that this may be a problem that is being ignored.

Addressing eating habits without addressing the stressors that caused them in the first place is like pulling weeds from the ground without removing the roots; it will work for the short term but soon the problem will resurface and you will be back to where you started from.

Losing weight and keeping it off is about changing the very "fabric" of your life. Researchers at the Scripps Institute have found that dopamine has been associated with addictive responses to certain foods, much like we see with cocaine or heroin use. Similar associations have been made with serotonin, and are brilliantly described in Dr. Mike Dow's book Diet Rehab.

You need to find other outlets, in place of food, that release the same chemicals in the brain than the tasty, calorie-dense alternatives we pick up at the drive-through windows. These other outlets come in the form of activities that require creativity and intellect. A study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience found that dopamine released during music-listening can cause feelings of euphoria. Other examples might include training for a 5K run, writing a book, running a support group, getting involved in community events. These activities can replace the "high" we get from eating high-calorie foods. Dr. Susan Albers discusses this in her book, 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food. Treating the overeating, setting up the action plan, and looking for new outlets all have to be done in conjunction.

The cycle of overeating and obesity can be broken. Those trapped in it know what it feels like, but putting our heads in the ground and wishing it would go away will not work -- anybody who has lost weight only to gain it all back and then some knows what I mean. There are at least seven common root causes, maybe more, that lead to using food as an escape; here I describe but one of them. What is important is that they are all treatable.

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