Habit forming: diet and relationships

Our relationship to food isn’t just dictated by hunger, it can also be deeply affected by the people around us, particularly romantic partners. The way one eats in a given moment might vary based on the stage of a relationship and/or the predilections of the other person. It’s important to recognize changes in your eating style, especially if you’ve temporarily abandoned or relaxed your nutritional habits during the early throes of a relationship. But it’s also healthy to occasionally surrender to more relaxed eating, particularly if the experience brings you closer together. The varied stages of a relationship can present new challenges with regards to nutrition, so experts provided habit-based solutions to keep you on track.

The Challenge: First Dates

Making a good first impression on a date is often intimidating, and the pressure of what to order at a restaurant can only heighten the intensity. Unsurprisingly, in this situation, people tend eat more conservatively: They want to control how they’re perceived, but are also busy soaking up everything about their date, says Katzie Guy-Hamilton, Equinox’s New York City-based director of food and beverage. Be authentic and order something that accurately reflects your normal eating style. (If you always eat pasta, don’t get a salad.)

The Solutions:

Share something: Deciding what to choose from the menu can be a bonding moment. “You can both enjoy and discuss the food, and it shows a level of teamwork and partnership from the get-go,” says Bethany Snodgrass, holistic health coach and operations manager at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute in New York City.

Pace yourself: “Try eating slower, so you can pay more attention to the conversation,” Guy-Hamilton recommends. “Being more present tends to make you eat less, anyway.” Remember that you’re there to learn about someone new. “Ask questions, actively listen, and put the fork down between bites,” says Snodgrass.

The Challenge: The Honeymoon Phase

Once you’ve solidified your relationship status, there’s often a dual sense of comfort and intensity. “You are doing more celebratory eating: more restaurant meals, more decadent things like eating ice cream in bed,” says Krista Scott-Dixon, Ph.D., the Vancouver-based director of curriculum for Precision Nutrition. “It’s not an everyday thing, which is what makes it special. [It’s] a desire to experience pleasure and enjoyment and human connection, and I would argue that we don’t want to lose that through any phase of the relationship.” This can lead to weight gain over time: When people are feeling giddy with romance, they throw inhibitions to the wind, including their dietary ones.

The Solutions:

Go on non-meal dates: they’ll bring depth to your blossoming relationship and keep food from being the center of attention. “There are so many other things to do that can help you get to know your new partner even better than just going out to eat,” Snodgrass says.

Approach menus thoughtfully: Your time together, rather than the food itself, can be celebratory. “Not every meal has to be a five-course extravaganza,” Guy-Hamilton says. “Go out to dinner and get branzino and braised chicory.”

The Challenge: The Long Term

Eating habits provide insight into aspects of relationship compatibility—if someone else’s are markedly different from yours it’s eye-opening; if both are very much in sync, it can be reassuring. If your partner is making it challenging for you to stick to your goals, gentle communication can help. Convey to the other person that you would like to approach eating in a particular way, and that you’d appreciate their support. “You can’t force somebody to join you [in your eating habits], even if you’re married to them,” Guy-Hamilton explains. “But you can definitely inspire them.”

The Solutions:

Remain true to yourself: Be sure that you aren’t losing important parts of your identity. “If you have healthy habits that make you feel great, don’t stop doing those to appease [someone else],” Snodgrass suggests. “It can slowly start to take you away from what makes you feel best, and this partner likes you at your best.” In a low-stress, gentle manner, express to your partner your eating preferences and your desire to stick to them.

Follow an 80/20 rule: Occasionally relaxing the rules can build intimacy. “Focus on eating healthily as a couple and individually 80 percent of the time, leaving a few occasions a week to indulge and share a meal that is maybe not so healthy but something you really enjoy together,” Snodgrass suggests.