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Lovesick? Or heartbroken? The diet starts today.

How a loving relationship can help you lose (or gain) weight.

It's Valentine's Day. The only day of the year specially dedicated to initiating love affairs, celebrating relationships, and spending inordinate amounts of money on superfluous heart-shaped paraphernalia.

But is all this lovey-dovey stuff really all it's cracked up to be? What about if you're trying to maintain a healthy body weight? Does being love-struck make you slim and gorgeous, or transform you into a big gelatinous ball of loved-up blubber?

Research suggests it's a bit of both.

First let's take the early stage of a relationship. When you fall in love the brain releases huge amounts of a chemical called dopamine - sometimes thought of as a ‘desire' chemical due to its important role in the experience of reward and motivation.

Eating tasty high-calorie foods also produces dopamine. But the tingle you get from a Krispy Kreme donut pales in comparison with the rush you get from being in the throes of a torrid love affair - probably because your genes figured out a long time ago that the latter can end up leading to replication.

So the initial stages of a relationship can actually make you lose weight.

But what about when you've been in the relationship a little while longer? And what happens if you move in together and get married?

Well no-one should underestimate the motivating power of the imminent threat of the wedding photographer to inspire radical size reduction - in the run-up to their weddings many brides (and some grooms) lose figure-transforming amounts of fat.

But when the dopamine storm settles many people in long-term relationships find they end up tipping the scales in the opposite direction.

This is probably in part because all of those comfy evenings on the sofa contemplating one's blissful contentment while munching take-out. And for women, having kids can also lead to creeping weight gain - especially if too much weight is gained during pregnancy.

It doesn't always happen this way, mind you.

Studies of people who need to improve their diet for health reasons find that those with supportive spouses do very well (at least better than those with less supportive spouses...). And sometimes marriages can even cause an excess of weight loss: research suggests that marital discord can trigger unhealthy dieting behaviors.

So how can you use all this information if you want to lose weight, not gain it? The evidence supports a five-stage plan.

Step One: Fall madly in love and embark on passionate, dopamine-inspiring love affair leading to proposal of marriage.

Step Two: Engage in sensible pre-wedding diet plan with highly-motivating goal of not looking like a beached whale in wedding albums for time immemorial.

(Note that you can skip Step Two if you are planning and funding the wedding yourself. This is because the stress will slim you down in a matter of weeks. Also, you will no longer be able to afford to buy food.)

Step Three: Enjoy blissful health-filled marriage united by joint mission to substitute salads and smoothies for sundaes and soda.

Step Four (women only): Don't have children. Or if you must then try really hard to avoid eating for two fully-grown people, when you're actually just feeding yourself and a fetus. I imagine that this is considerably more difficult than I am making it sound.

Step Five: Undergo messy and traumatic divorce. Best-selling author Liz Gilbert lost 15 pounds by this method. (Don't worry - she gained it all back again stuffing her face with pizza and gelato in Naples.)

I'm being tongue-in-cheek, of course.

Love is obviously much more than a weight loss tool. And few people want to slim down badly enough that they'd willingly proceed to that highly-effective but thoroughly unpleasant final stage of the proposed diet plan.

But any brave souls who do so can at least find nourishment by reflecting on this little titbit: Steps One to Four are infinitely more fun than Step 5 and the Love Diet can be iterative.

Whether you're married, single, or in a relationship, Happy Valentine's Day everyone!

More from Susan Carnell Ph.D.
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