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Want to lose weight? Study suggests you should enlist your significant other

While the study shows partners who lose weight together shed more pounds, experts say more research is needed to understand partners' impact weight loss.
/ Source: TODAY

Thinking about making a few healthy changes? You might want to enlist your significant other first. An abstract presented at the European Society of Cardiology found that having a partner helped people shed more weight than those trying to lose weight alone. But experts say it is too soon to fully understand the role partners play in weight loss.

“The abstract builds on the evidence that has been accumulating over the past couple of decades about the influence of partners on lifestyle changes,” Corrine Voils, primary investigator of Partner2Lose, a clinical trial evaluating partner involvement on long-term weight loss, at University of Wisconsin, Madison, who did not participate in this research, told TODAY. “Partners might have some effect there, but it is really hard to tell with studies that are designed like this because they are not designed to test that specific question.”

For the study, researchers from Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and the Academic Medical Center at the university examined what impact partners have on lifestyle-related behaviors with patients who have acute coronary syndrome. They split the more than 800 participants into two groups; one group made some changes, including physical activity, weight reduction or quitting smoking. The control group received the usual care. Having a partner was associated with better outcomes.

“Our study showed that patients with partners have a better chance of improving their lifestyle compared to patients without a partner,” Lotte Verweij, a PhD student and author of the abstract told TODAY, via email. “We found more success on weight loss in patients participating with a partner who joined the weight reduction program. These study results indicate that partner participation is recommended in achieving lifestyle modification.”

While the results sound encouraging, Voils said the study design means the results aren’t as straightforward as they seem. The study wasn't designed to look at partners and weight loss, it was designed to analyze the lifestyle changes. In the process, the researchers noticed that study participants with a partner who made lifestyle changes had greater weight-loss success.

Voils is in the recruitment phase for her study, which is looking at the role that partners have in weight loss. For 18 months, Voils and her colleagues will teach couples communication and problem solving, for example, to see if that helps with weight loss. Some studies indicate that these skills can help.

“It’s mainly joint problem solving and then sharing your thoughts and feelings in other contexts that seems to work (when it comes to weight loss),” she said.

Current research is mixed on whether a partner makes an impact on the other’s weight loss, though.

“A lot of the studies that are out there are actually inconclusive,” Voils explained. "Some show a beneficial effect on the partner and some don’t."

Nutritionists often notice people lose more weight if they have the support of a partner or a friend. That's because good partners provide natural support.

“We don’t have to be our own cheerleader,” Leslie Bonci, nutritionist and owner of Active Eating Advice, told TODAY. “If we have other people in our support circle we don’t just have to listen to our own voice … It also gives someone that sense of accountability.”

Bonci said eating is more than just consuming food. It’s a social experience and couples can do everything from shopping, meal prep, cooking and eating together, which provides many chances to bolster healthy habits.

“It’s not just you in your own head about what you’re choosing to eat,” she said. “(Eating) together is social and you really enjoy the actual putting of the food in the mouth.”

While some might prefer creating healthy behaviors with a partner, Voils believes more work needs to be done to understand the impact partners have on weight loss.

“It’s one piece of the puzzle and it is certainly consistent with other students that show that a partner might be helpful. What we don’t know at this point is under what circumstances and for whom that’s true,” she said. “It gives us a hint that there might be something going on but also suggests the need for future research.”