Is Limiting What You Eat Making You Lonely?
Are you, or is someone you know, living with a food restriction? Food restrictions are increasingly common, with reports that six out of ten Americans are restricted from eating certain foods, usually for health-related or religious reasons. Food restrictions are not only challenging from a nutritional perspective. They also have consequences for people’s ability to connect to and bond with others. In a recently published article, we, along with our co-author Ayelet Fishbach, found that food restrictions cause people to feel less connected to others, and lonelier as a result.
Our inspiration for examining the link between food restriction and loneliness arose from our earlier research that found that eating foods that are similar to what other people are eating can create social bonds. For example, strangers in an experiment who were assigned to eat the same candy reported liking each other more and feeling closer to each other than strangers assigned to eat different candies. If eating similar food brings people together and strengthens bonds, might the reverse also be true? Would food restrictions hinder people’s ability to bond over the meal?
Aside from our own research, the idea that food restrictions contribute to loneliness is suggested by interviews of children who must restrict what they eat, media reports on childhood bullying due to food restrictions, and reports that living with a food restriction is “a lonely struggle.” Beyond this indirect evidence, we examined whether people who must restrict what they eat actually report feeling lonelier.
We first tested the link between food restrictions and loneliness across three different populations. We measured the presence of food restrictions using adults’ reports of their own restrictions, teachers’ reports of their students’ restrictions, and parents’ reports of their children’s restrictions. We also measured chronic loneliness by asking, for example, whether people reported feeling left out, isolated from others, or lacking in companionship. Across all three of these samples, having a food restriction was associated with greater loneliness.
Why do restrictions lead to loneliness? One reason is that living with a food restriction causes people to worry constantly about food and eating. People fret about how their meals will go and worry that others will judge them because of what they can and cannot eat. These food worries make people feel disconnected and isolated from others, and, as a result, lonelier.
In addition to the fact that food restrictions are linked to chronic loneliness—a feeling that persists over time—people can also experience situational feelings of loneliness when they are unable to eat the food that others eat. We tested this idea in an experiment designed to mirror restrictions that arise due to the legal drinking age in the United States. We recruited college students to our research lab for a group activity. During the activity, students either believed that they were drinking the same sparkling cider as others in their group or believed that they were drinking sparkling cider while others in their group were drinking wine. When students believed that they were drinking the same sparkling cider as other participants, they felt less excluded and lonely than when they thought they were the only ones drinking sparkling cider. This finding highlights the causal link between food restrictions and loneliness.
So, are we doomed to feel isolated if we have a food restriction? Not necessarily. Our findings offer some upsides and ways for people living with a food restriction to cope. First, thinking about a time when they could eat the same food as others helps people with food restrictions feel more connected. Second, food restrictions bond together people who have similar restrictions. For example, although we found that avoiding eating leavened foods during Passover made people feel disconnected from those who were not Jewish, it helped to connect them to fellow Jewish people and family members who also avoided these foods. Finally, those with restrictions can find other ways to bond with people and foster social connections that do not involve eating. From interactive games to movies or group projects, there are many experiences other than meals that people can share with others. Of course, this may be more easily realized in a COVID-free future world than in the present, but one can always hope.
In a nutshell, both food restrictions and loneliness are common phenomena that are on the rise. Our research found that they could be related to each other and that a restricted diet can lead to feelings of loneliness.
For Further Reading
Woolley, K., Fishbach, A., & Wang, R. (M.). (2020). Food restriction and the experience of social isolation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(3), 657–671. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000223
Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2017). A recipe for friendship: Similar food consumption promotes trust and cooperation. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 27(1), 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcps.2016.06.003
Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2019). Shared plates, shared minds: Consuming from a shared plate promotes cooperation. Psychological Science, 30(4), 541-552. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619830633
Cao, J., Kong, D. T., & Galinsky, A. D. (in press). Breaking Bread Produces Bigger Pies: An Empirical Extension of Shared Eating to Negotiations and a Commentary on Woolley and Fishbach (2019). Psychological Science, https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620939532
Kaitlin Woolley is an assistant professor of marketing at Cornell University
Ronghan (Michelle) Wang is a Ph.D. student in marketing at Cornell University