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Loneliness and Eating

Because I enjoy being validated as much as the next person, I was gratified to read Jane Brody’s column, “Loneliness can change your health for the worse” (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 5/21/13) which describes the connection between feeling lonely and reaching for food. Understanding the connection will help you break it, so read on.

Brody, a recovered emotional eater, quotes psychologist John T. Cacioppo, co-author of the book, LONELINESS: “Loneliness undermines people’s ability to self-regulate.” If you’ve read my blogs and books about disregulation and self-regulation, you’ll understand what’s happening. When we’re in emotional distress, our bio-chemistry goes into disequilibrium, and we may turn to the chemicals in food to re-regulate it.

Cacioppo points to one experiment in which participants who were “made to feel socially disconnected ate many more cookies than those made to feel socially accepted,” and another in which people scoring high in loneliness “ate substantially more fatty foods than those who scored low.” He goes on to cite research concluding that social isolation puts people at risk for illness and premature death because loneliness raises stress hormones, increasing body organ inflammation. Loneliness may even affect how certain genes are expressed (turned on and off) in the body.

Brody cites a study that says “how people perceive their situation may have a stronger impact on health than whether they live alone and lack social connections.” You know that saying about feeling alone in a crowd, or even in a marriage or partnership? That’s what she’s talking about—not the number of people around you, but how connected or disconnected you feel from them. Our meaning of reality makes all the difference.

Because we’re basically social animals, we require meaningful connections, and these are often sorely lacking in disregulated eaters. I ask clients about best friends and they often tell me they don’t have many or any. Feeling vulnerable and scared around people, they remain socially isolated which is not a natural state of being, then wonder why they turn to food when they’re lonely. By making authentic, reciprocal connections, you’ll feel less lonely and disregulated and be less inclined to use food to self-regulate. Of course, these connections won’t magically happen overnight. For more information on loneliness, its relationship with emotional eating, and how to turn toward people, not food, read the chapter on loneliness in my FOOD AND FEELINGS WORKBOOK which can be purchased through Gürze Books.