Loneliness

Why Dieting Might Lead to Feelings of Loneliness

A new study finds that food restrictions can make people feel socially isolated.

Posted Dec 13, 2019

Richard foster / Flickr
Source: Richard foster / Flickr

Food restrictions are on the rise. It is likely that you, or someone you know, practices some form of a restricted diet—whether that's vegetarianism, veganism, pescetarianism, dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free, or something else.

Some do it for health reasons. A recent FAIR Health white paper, for instance, found a 377 percent increase in food allergies in the United States between 2007 and 2016. Others do it for ethical or religious reasons. 

But what are the social implications of following a food-restricted diet? New research forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that such diets may have the unintended consequence of increasing feelings of loneliness and social isolation.

"Food consumption is an inherently social activity, as people often acquire, prepare, and eat food in social contexts," state Kaitlin Woolley, Ayelet Fishbach, and Rongham Michelle Wang, the authors of the study. "We found that food restrictions predict loneliness. People who are unable to eat what others eat, to some extent, are less able to bond with others over the meal."

They based their hypothesis on a litany of past research hinting at a relationship between food restrictions and social isolation. Studies have found, for instance, that kids experience bullying as a result of their food restrictions and that vegetarian college students are more likely to experience depressive symptoms. Moreover, people with celiac disease often refer to their condition as "a lonely struggle."

"Those with food restrictions are constantly navigating situations in which they are unable to eat what others eat," state the researchers. "For them, most group meals involve experiencing situational exclusion. Compounded over time, this could lead to a chronic experience of loneliness such that those with food restrictions are lonelier, on average, than unrestricted individuals."

To test their hypothesis, the researchers recruited 495 American adults to participate in a short online survey. The researchers asked participants to report any food restrictions they had (for example, peanuts, shellfish, soy, celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, vegan, Kosher, diabetic, etc.) as well as to assess how lonely they felt.

Consistent with their hypothesis, they found that having a food restriction was associated with higher levels of loneliness. And the size of the effect wasn't small. The researchers reported that the relationship between food restriction and loneliness was equivalent in magnitude to the association between being unmarried and loneliness, which they also measured in the study.

Next, the researchers attempted to find causal evidence linking food restrictions to social isolation. To do this, they recruited a group of Jewish-Americans to participate in a similar study, with one key difference: the researchers designed the study to take place during and after Passover (a weeklong Jewish holiday during which observers refrain from eating leavened food). They predicted that participants would experience greater social isolation during the week of Passover than after due to the temporary dietary restriction.

They found this to be the case. Specifically, upon reminding participants of their food restriction and then asking them to assess their level of loneliness, participants reported higher levels of loneliness when the food restriction was in effect. And, this was especially true for people who ate meals with non-observers as opposed to those who ate the majority of their meals with members of their religious community.

The authors conclude, "Both food restrictions and loneliness are societal problems on the rise; this research found that they may be related epidemics."

References

Woolley, K., Fishbach, A., & Wang, R. M. (2019). Food restriction and the experience of social isolation. Journal of personality and social psychology.