The Marriage Decline: Obesity’s Hidden Culprit

It is the topic everyone is talking about: marriage. The demise of the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) in June sent a ripple of excitement around the United States, as discussion heats up over how the new legislation will affect gay marriage. But gays are not the only ones for whom marriage is changing. Gay or straight, people are waiting longer to marry and having more children outside of marriage. These vast changes, summarized in this report, have policymakers buzzing about the hidden costs of delayed marriage, especially for children. Yet, despite all the hype, we have ignored a major question.

Could declining marriage be responsible for the nation’s obesity epidemic?

The deterioration of marriage has dramatically altered the fabric of daily life. Imagine life in 1953 for a typical 30-year-old (let’s call him Charlie): Charlie goes to work, leaving his wife and two children at the breakfast table, and returns to find his family waiting around a home-cooked chicken dinner. Now imagine Charlie in 2013: he leaves for work, snagging some Starbucks en route, and returns home to his loft, tossing a frozen pizza in the oven while checking Twitter and Facebook.

Historically, women have taken the most responsibility for cooking. Even as women flooded the workforce in the second half of the 20th century, they retained control in the kitchen. During the 1970s and 1980s, new technologies like microwaves and dishwashers made cooking quicker, while the rise of fast food and packaged processed food made it easier to heat food up or simply not cook at all. Yet, despite these changes, women still spent twice as much time cooking as men in 2008, at 45 minutes per day compared to a paltry 19. Like it or not, cooking has long been — and apparently still is — women’s work.

This gendered division of cooking is why the marital decline may be partially responsible for burgeoning obesity. As a nation, we are hardly cooking. Add to this the breakup of the modern marriage, leaving many men and women on their own and, in the absence of the skills or social norms to promote cooking, cooking a healthy meal at home becomes even less likely. Besides, it is difficult to find the time or motivation to cook for one.

More women are starting families outside of marriage as well, making it even more difficult to find time to cook. Low-income women are especially at risk: not only are they more likely to become single mothers, but once they have families, they struggle to pay for and prepare nutritious meals from scratch, and their children are at increased risk of obesity.

But why is cooking so important? Many have called for the return of home cooking and home economics as a potential solution to obesity. Cooking may improve diet in numerous ways: when you cook, you have more control over ingredients used, which likely translates into less sugar, fat, and salt. You may be more mindful, remembering the cups of cheddar in the mac ‘n’cheese or the sugar in those cookies. You may take more time to savor the experience. You may only eat doughnuts once a year, because of the time and effort required to make them. Or it may just be what you are not eating: fast food or restaurant food, which can contain almost a whole day’s worth of calories.

So what is the solution? The modern American family is diverse. A family may be two men, a cohabiting couple, a woman and child, or any number of possibilities. The gendered division of labor in the kitchen no longer works.

Yet, the American family just may be the key to the solution. Bringing cooking back into the home, where creating and enjoying food can be a shared experience, could reacquaint Americans with the fundamental act of feeding themselves. Of course, this is no easy task. In a country where busyness is bragable, where people worship at the monument of multitasking, cooking requires re-prioritization. It requires looking at food preparation not as another task to cross off the list, but an act of physical, social, and even spiritual nourishment.

Cooking also requires divorcing ourselves from the notion that the kitchen remains the women’s domain.  Families in any form can teach children how to cook, using the kitchen as context for teaching, for talking, or for playing. Single men — or women — can linger over a simply prepared summer salad. Social media and public health campaigns can promote an idea of masculinity that includes cooking. In schools, nutrition courses can teach teens of both genders how to prepare cheap and convenient foods from scratch.

But the biggest barrier? For many of us, the highest hurdle may be the simple act of stepping away from our screens and into a place both familiar and foreign: the kitchen.


This entry was posted in Gender, Health by Lindsey P. Smith. Bookmark the permalink.
Lindsey P. Smith

About Lindsey P. Smith

Lindsey Smith is a Doctoral Student in Nutrition Epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and a pre-doctoral trainee at the Carolina Population Center. She received a B.A. in Sociology from Northwestern University and an MPH from the Yale School of Public Health. Lindsey’s research focuses on social and behavioral determinants of obesity and food-related chronic disease, in the US and internationally. Currently her work with the UNC Food Research Program focuses on food preparation patterns and trends in the United States, including how home-cooking behaviors have changed and are linked to health patterns.

5 thoughts on “The Marriage Decline: Obesity’s Hidden Culprit

  1. Pingback: The Demise of Marriage– Obesity’s Hidden Culprit? | Lindsey P. Smith

  2. This is an intriguing area to investigate, but the hypothesis seems a bit unclear. Is the argument that rising obesity is caused by (1) lower marriage rates (i.e., singles eat out more often and consume more calories/day), or (2) changing roles within marriage (i.e., two-earner families eat out more often) ?

    Most importantly, what is the empirical evidence? For example, do we have basic data on BMI by age, controlling for current marital status?

  3. Hi Carl,

    Thanks for the comment! I think the mechanism could work through either of the pathways you suggested, although I was thinking of the former more than the latter. For men especially, living alone could lead to eating away-from-home more frequently as well as higher reliance on processed, packaged foods. This hypothesis is mediated by lack of knowledge or prioritization of home cooking. Women likely show some of the same pattern as men, but I think that low income women would be more greatly impacted. Those who wait to marry delay the increase in household income that comes with the addition of another working adult, which could result in less time for home cooking (for example, if a single mother has to work multiple jobs) or income to buy healthy ingredients. As for empirical data, there isn’t much out there yet. However, I’m hoping to conduct a study using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth in 1979 and 1997 to see how shifts in age at first marriage are associated with obesity incidence over time and potentially test some of these hypotheses.

  4. Hi Lindsey,
    Thanks for your post which I found quite thought-provoking. I was wondering if you considered the direction of your causal argument. You propose that the decline in marriage is leading to an increase in obesity (through the mechanism of the erosion of home cooking). But I am left wondering if the causality also flows in the other direction. Is obesity a cause for marriage breakdown? This may not be the case but I believe you will make your argument stronger if you at least address this counter-argument head-on. Good luck with your research, Anne-Marie

  5. Hi Anne-Marie, Thanks for the comment. What you propose is certainly a possibility. On one hand, obese people are less likely to get married, so the increase in obesity could contribute to a decline in marriage. On the other, people are attracted to others who are like them. If this were the case, and given that overweight and obese are now more common conditions than being normal weight in the US, then you might expect that marriage rates might not change all that much. What complicates things is that in many cases overweight and/or obesity don’t develop until a person is past the average age of marriage (or past their 20′s), so it’s difficult to say how this influences marriage rates–but perhaps it influences divorce? Food for thought, that’s for sure.

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