If you got married before finishing college, you might have an excuse for any extra pounds. A new study suggests that young adults who wed before graduation are about 50 percent more likely to later become obese than those who waited to tie the knot.
The findings suggest that lifestyle choices by newlyweds early in life can be long-lasting, said study lead author Richard Miech, a research professor at the University of Michigan.
"Newlyweds may change their diet patterns and may give up individual exercise routines," he said. "People entering a marriage should be made aware that the decisions they make may follow them for decades. Hopefully, this awareness will lead newlyweds to consider these decisions carefully."
Researchers already know that getting married tends to contribute to weight gain, much like the legendary "freshman 15" that new college students encounter.
"The initial transition to marriage is associated with weight gain of 10 to 15 pounds, weight that for many may persist for decades," Miech said.
In the new study, "we wanted to look in more detail at the initial adjustment to married life," he said.
The researchers looked at a national study of nearly 14,000 people who were tracked from 1995, when they were 11 to 19 years old, to 2008, when they reached their 20s and 30s. Overall, 29 percent got college degrees, and 7 percent of those got married first.
Among those with a college degree, obesity -- a body mass index of 30 or above -- was most common in those who wed before finishing four years of college. Almost 25 percent of those people were obese, compared to 17 percent of those who got married after getting a degree.
Even after adjusting their statistics to reflect factors that might throw them off, the researchers determined that those who wed before college graduation were still more likely to be obese than those who married later.
While the study did not prove marriage before graduating from college caused greater weight gain, Miech has theories to explain the connection.
"People who enter marriage with a college degree in hand have more resources to navigate the changes in lifestyle that come with marriage without shortchanging their health," he said. "They are more likely to have better problem-solving skills to come up with innovative solutions for their unique circumstances."
Income may play a role, too.
"Individuals with a college degree on average have more income than those without, so that they can afford to buy a gym membership or pay for child care," he said. Combined with the better problem-solving skills, "these factors allow newlyweds with a college degree to establish healthy diet and exercise habits that are long-lasting."
Debra Umberson, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, praised the study.
It "takes us beyond studies that focus on marriage and body weight or that focus on education and body weight," she said.
She offered her own theories on the findings.
Those who marry before completing college "may be more 'settled' at an earlier age, with a less active lifestyle that is simply carried forward as they age," she said.
It's also possible, she said, that certain kinds of people "are more likely to marry at a young age or to attend different types of colleges -- for example, community colleges as compared to universities -- and that this is associated with greater weight gain over time."
Miech suggested that couples who married before they got their college degree think about how some of their current diet and exercise habits are the result of decisions they made during their initial transition to marriage.
"I encourage them to consider if they would make the same decisions today and, if not, to work towards better diet and exercise regimens," he said.
The study appears in the June issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.