Loneliness associated with food cravings in some women, study shows

Loneliness can be a risk factor for many mental and physical health problems, including poor eating habits and obesity. A new study suggests that alterations in the solitary brain could explain why some women are more likely to make poor food choices.

Researchers found that when exposed to images of food – particularly sugary, high-calorie foods – the brains of women who reported feeling lonely showed increased activity in regions associated with rumination and increased activity. reduced in an area associated with the control.

“Think of executive control as a drag,” said psychologist Arpana Gupta, co-director of the Goodman-Luskin Microbiome Center at the University of California, Los Angeles and lead author of the study. If your brakes are faulty, it becomes difficult to avoid the food you’re craving, “but if your brakes are working really well, you press them a little and that will prevent you from satisfying that craving,” she said.

The study by Gupta and other UCLA researchers was published Friday in JAMA Network Open.

These findings are a step toward understanding the physiological link between loneliness and poor diet, which could inspire immediate behavioral changes and future targets for obesity treatments.

A similar study in men could help distinguish sex-specific differences in brain activity related to loneliness and eating habits, because men and women have different brain patterns when it comes to obesity, Gupta said. . And to understand the cause and effect – versus correlation – between loneliness and eating habits, a follow-up longitudinal study would be needed, which would require collecting data from participants at multiple time points, he said. she declared.

Solitary brain changes are stronger for sweet foods

Researchers collected demographic and body composition data, including body mass index, from 93 healthy premenopausal women in Los Angeles, ages 18 to 50, with an average age of approximately 25 years.

The women completed questionnaires about their mental health, eating behaviors and perceived social isolation, also known as loneliness. Perceived social isolation was assessed using the Perceived Isolation Scale, which measures the frequency of support from friends, family, and partners.

The participants’ brains were then scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which measures changes in blood flow in the brain as an indicator of activity.

Since other neurological studies had shown an association between loneliness and changes in different brain networks involved in reasoning, intrinsic awareness, visual attention and reward, the researchers examined these same networks in the context of food cues .

While under the MRI scanner, the women were shown images of different food categories. One set consisted of high-calorie sweet foods, such as chocolate cakes and ice cream. Another topic was high-calorie salty foods, such as fries and hamburgers. There are also two categories of low-calorie foods – one savory and one sweet – which include salads and fruits, respectively.

Participants viewed non-food pixelated images as a comparison control.

Functional MRI data showed that participants with higher social isolation had increased brain activity to food cues in the inferior parietal lobule, a brain structure associated with rumination, and in the occipital cortex, which converts this that your eyes detect as information.

These participants also showed reduced activity in their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain important for reasoning and inhibition that is part of the executive control network.

Changes in brain activity were stronger when participants with higher perceived social isolation consumed sugary, high-calorie foods, such as chocolate cake. Sweet foods are known to stimulate our brain’s reward center, and one theory is that they could serve as a source of pleasure during periods of loneliness, helping to “reduce the social pain and discomfort associated with being alone or isolated,” Gupta said.

Furthermore, from body composition and questionnaire data, researchers found that participants with higher perceived social isolation had higher body fat percentage, lower diet quality, and poorer health. mental, which included a decrease in psychological resilience – the ability to adapt to difficult circumstances. .

Loneliness and eating behavior

“We’re talking about things like that you might eat for emotional reasons, that you might crave certain types of foods,” said Katherine Hanna, a senior lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at the Queensland University of Technology. , who recently published an extensive review of research on the association. between loneliness or social isolation and food and eating behavior. But “this study really looks at how the brain responds,” beginning to bridge the connection between loneliness and diet, she said.

“Part of the problem is this tendency to oversimplify why we eat what we eat, which leads to things like judgmental attitudes or ‘Why don’t you eat better?'” said Hanna, who was not involved in the recent study. . “And of course, changing our diet is much more complicated than simply knowing or having enough willpower.”

Eating behavior and obesity contribute to many chronic diseases, and understanding how loneliness is linked to eating-related behaviors – as this study attempts to do – could help explain how it also contributes to chronic diseases and early mortality, said psychologist Louise Hawkley, a senior psychologist. researcher at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

However, said Hawkley, who was not involved in the study, “better assessment of eating behaviors will be needed, not just self-reported behaviors.”

Ways to counter loneliness

There are ways to connect with people that would benefit our eating behavior and overall physical and mental health, experts said.

Hanna suggested finding ways to eat and even prepare food with other people. “It’s not just about nourishing our bodies, but also nourishing our social connections,” she said.

For example, when you’re at work, take time to eat at communal eating places rather than in the office, Hanna suggested. Sign up for a cooking class or volunteer for a food-related organization like a community garden or meal preparation and delivery service.

“Loneliness is more closely linked to poor-quality relationships” that cause stress or conflict “than to a relationship deficit,” said Hawkley, whose much of the research focuses on loneliness and its associations with health during aging. “Perhaps the first decision is whether to maintain these relationships or abandon them.”

“On the other hand, if you perceive signs of rejection or exclusion that prevent you from even trying to connect with others, you may benefit from professional help,” she said. -she declared.

Hawkley also suggested finding an interest group or volunteer organization that aligns with what you care about. “Instead of looking for signs of rejection or exclusion, look for signs of acceptance, cues of connection, people who may be as hungry for connection as you are,” she said.

Based on functional MRI data, Gupta said, finding activities that help you avoid ruminating on cravings and strengthen your executive control could make a difference. She suggested meditation and other stress-reducing exercises such as journaling. And, she says, when your brain’s reward center craves a sweet craving, try reaching for a handful of berries instead of that second slice of cake.

If you’re feeling lonely but don’t know what to do first, start simple: maybe call a friend for a quick chat or send a text message. You don’t have to go out and be a “social butterfly,” Gupta said. “If we empower people to do these little things, it makes a difference when they’re on their own. »

Do you have a question about human behavior or neuroscience? E-mail and we will perhaps answer it in a future column.

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