Food restrictions may stoke loneliness

Self-consciousness over a dietary restriction could drive feelings of isolation

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Alice G. Walton | Jan 13, 2020

An increasing number of people have food restrictions these days, due to health reasons, such as food allergies, as well as religious, moral, and environmental concerns. According to FAIR Health, an independent nonprofit, the United States experienced a 377 percent increase in severe food allergic reactions between 2007 and 2016.

But food restrictions can be linked to feelings of loneliness, suggests research by Cornell’s Kaitlin Woolley, a graduate of Chicago Booth’s PhD Program, Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach, and Cornell PhD candidate Ronghan Michelle Wang

In previous research, Woolley and Fishbach find that sharing meals can connect people, even strangers, in powerful ways. For their recent study, they postulated that “if eating similar food brings people together and strengthens bonds, food restrictions could limit one’s ability to bond over a meal.” 

To find out, the researchers had 500 US adult participants answer questions about their food restrictions and feelings of isolation. People with food restrictions reported feeling more socially isolated than those without. The same connection was found in 710 elementary schoolchildren in the US when the researchers asked teachers to rate their students’ food restrictions and loneliness. And it turned up when the researchers looked at data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 2014 and 2017. In a sample of over 35,000 children, the researchers again observed an association between food restrictions and loneliness. 

It also held for college students who observed Passover, where eating leavened food is avoided—they were lonelier during the holiday, when they were eating different foods from their peers, although they felt more connected to their observant peers. Finally, in a controlled experiment, college students who could not drink the alcoholic beverage their group members were having—because they were underage—felt lonelier in the group. 

The link between food restrictions and feelings of isolation exists because people are concerned about how others perceive their restrictions, the researchers posit. Participants with food restrictions agreed with statements such as: “When eating with others, I worry about having to tell others at the table that I don’t eat a certain food.” 

“Those with food restrictions reported greater concerns about taking too long to make a food decision and fear that others avoid them or make negative assumptions about them based on their food choices and preferences, which drove the increase in loneliness,” the researchers write.

But when the participants with food restrictions recalled a time they ate a meal with friends, a meal at which everyone was able to share foods, the reported feeling of social isolation disappeared. 

The findings suggest that to overcome the potentially negative social effects of food restrictions, it might be useful to focus on the overarching similarities across a meal. Categorizing a meal as, say, Mexican rather than a burrito or a taco salad “could increase the perception that people eat similarly,” they write.