For better or worse: relationship status and body mass index

Econ Hum Biol. 2008 Dec;6(3):330-49. doi: 10.1016/j.ehb.2008.07.003. Epub 2008 Jul 15.


Recent increases in the incidence of obesity and declines in marriage have prompted policymakers to implement policies to mitigate these trends. This paper examines the link between these two outcomes. There are four hypotheses (selection, protection, social obligation and marriage market) that might explain the relationship between marital status transitions and changes in Body Mass Index (BMI). The selection hypothesis suggests that those with a lower BMI are more likely to be selected into marriage. The protection hypothesis states that married adults will have better physical health as a result of the increased social support and reduced incidence of risky behavior among married individuals. The social obligation hypothesis states that those in relationships may eat more regular meals and/or richer and denser foods due to social obligations which may arise because of marriage. Finally, the marriage market hypothesis indicates that when adults are no longer in the marriage market they may not maintain a healthy BMI because doing so is costly and they are in a stable union-or on the other hand, adults may enhance their prospects in the marriage market by losing weight. Taking advantage of longitudinal data and complete marriage histories in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, we estimate individual fixed effects models to examine associations between the change in log BMI and the incidence of overweight and obesity, and changes in relationship status controlling for the effects of aging and other respondent characteristics. We find no support for the marriage protection hypothesis. Rather we find evidence supporting the social obligation and marriage market hypotheses-BMI increases for both men and women during marriage and in the course of a cohabiting relationship. Separate analyses by race and ethnicity reveal substantial differences in the response of BMI to relationship status across these groups.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Body Mass Index*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Marital Status / statistics & numerical data*
  • Models, Econometric
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Environment
  • Young Adult