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, assistant professor of marketing in Cornell's 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 nonfood 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.
Bonding over meals is an inherently social experience, the research says. In previous research, they 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.
Compared with nonrestricted individuals, having a restriction increased reported loneliness by 19%. 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 to epidemics,” warranting further research.
“This is a problem that I don’t think people are quite aware of,” Woolley said, “and that has implications for people’s ability to connect with others over eating.”