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Spouses' Diets Go Up in Smoke

Bad eating habits travel in pairs, particularly if one partner smokes

MONDAY, Sept. 24, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- As if kissing a walking ashtray isn't bad enough, people married to smokers now have something else to consider -- their own diets. A new study suggests that non-smoking spouses of smokers are more likely to eat poorly than other people.

"We should realize that smoking affects not only the individual who smokes but also his or her family," said study co-author Jeffrey Hampl, a professor of nutrition at Arizona State University.

According to Hampl, researchers have long known that smokers have bad diets. For one thing, smoking dulls a person's taste buds, he said. "They are more prone to eat desserts and concentrated sweets to overcome [that]," he said.

Perhaps more importantly, "bad habits tend to cluster," he said. "If a person smokes, he or she is more likely to be a big coffee drinker, more likely to overconsume alcohol, and less likely to eat vegetables and fruits."

Finally, he said, smokers may simply not give a darn. "You may have a devil-may-care attitude about smoking that could transfer to your eating habits."

Hampl became curious about the diets of spouses of smokers and examined a 1994-1996 federal study of 450 nonsmoking men and women married to smokers and 1,500 nonsmoking men and women married to nonsmokers. The study had focused on people's food consumption over a two-day period.

The findings are reported in the September/October 2001 issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

"We found that men and women who are married to smokers had much higher intakes of total fat and saturated fat, but they had much lower intakes of fiber and vitamin A," Hampl said.

The men ate about six more grams of fat than other men during a typical day; women ate about four more grams a day, Hampl said. The women also ate less folate, a B vitamin that is found in green vegetables, fruits and enriched breads. A deficiency of folate in a pregnant woman's diet is linked to birth defects.

It's not clear why couples share unhealthy habits. Spouses of smokers may simply not get the external motivation they need to be healthy, said Jacqueline Berning, a professor of nutrition at the University of Colorado.

"[They] may not be encouraged to exercise and make better food choices," said Berning, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "If I'm going to have a healthy habit, I'm not going to be supported by my spouse."

Hampl noted that spouses often eat together, and even if they don't, one spouse is usually in charge of food purchases, spreading his or her health habits to the other.

Dietitians and doctors need to pay more attention to the diets of non-smoking spouses, he said. "A lot of times we ask people if they smoke, and we take that into account. We need to think of that person's spouse or children."

But changing a family's diet isn't easy, Berning cautioned. Smokers, for instance, need to work in "baby steps."

Berning tells her patients that she won't ask them to "quit drinking and smoking and go to bean sprouts and tofu. As registered dietitians, we try to get them to make small changes in their diet to help them make significant health changes over time."

What To Do

The American Dietetic Association offers a series of Q&As about nutrition topics. Choose your subject here.

Yes, Virginia, there's still a food pyramid. Check out the updated version, with daily federal dietary suggestions, presented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

SOURCES: Interviews with Jeffrey S. Hampl, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor of nutrition, Arizona State University, Mesa; Jacqueline Berning, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor of nutrition, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs; September/October 2001 American Journal of Health Promotion
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