Food Restrictions Can Lead to Loneliness

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Emerging research suggests that a restricted diet due to allergies, health issues or religious or cultural norms can lead to feelings of loneliness.

Cornell University researchers performed seven studies and controlled experiments and discovered food restrictions predicted loneliness among both children and adults.

“Despite being physically present with others, having a food restriction leaves people feeling left out because they are not able to take part in bonding over the meal,” said Kaitlin Woolley, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing in the Graduate School of Management and lead author of the research.

The research also offers the first evidence, Woolley said, that having a food restriction can increase loneliness. For example, in one experiment, assigning unrestricted individuals to experience a food restriction increased reported feelings of loneliness. That suggests such feelings are not driven by non-food issues or limited to picky eaters, Woolley said.

“We can strip that away and show that assigning someone to a restriction or not can have implications for their feeling of inclusion in the group meal,” she said.

Further evidence came from a survey of observers of the Jewish holiday of Passover. When reminded during the holiday of the leavened foods they couldn’t enjoy with others, participants’ loneliness increased. Yet, within their own similarly restricted group, they felt a stronger bond.

Bonding over meals is an inherently social experience, Woolley noted. In previous research, she found that strangers felt more connected and trusting of each other when they shared the same food, and eating food from the same plate increased cooperation between strangers.

But when restricted from sharing in the meal, people suffer “food worries,” Woolley said. They fret about what they can eat and how others might judge them for not fitting in.

Investigators discovered these worries can generate a degree of loneliness comparable to that reported by unmarried or low-income adults, and stronger than that experienced by schoolchildren who were not native English speakers.

Compared with non-restricted individuals, having a restriction increased reported loneliness by 19 percent. People felt lonelier regardless of how severe their restriction was, or whether their restriction was imposed or voluntary.

The study concluded that food restrictions and loneliness are on the rise and “may be related epidemics,” warranting further research.

To date, Woolley said, children have been the primary focus of research on the effects of food restrictions. A nationally representative survey she analyzed from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not track the issue among adults.

But increasingly, she said, food restrictions are being carried into adulthood, or adults are choosing restricted diets such as gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan for health or ethical reasons. Up to 30 percent of all participants in her research deal with restrictions, Woolley said.

“This is a problem that I don’t think people are quite aware of,” she said, “and that has implications for people’s ability to connect with others over eating.”

Source: Cornell University

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