Experts Weight In On The Link Between Loneliness And Sugar Cravings


Loneliness is not merely a mood issue; a recent study suggests that individuals who perceive themselves as socially isolated may also experience more intense cravings for sugary foods. This is supported by brain activity scans, as detailed in research published in JAMA Network Open.

The study builds on prior investigations that have established links between loneliness and poor mental health, cognitive decline, weight gain, and obesity-related chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes. Despite the abundant evidence for these connections, the precise underlying causes remain unclear, notes senior study author Arpana Gupta, PhD, an associate professor and director of the G. Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience at the University of California (UCLA) in Los Angeles.

“While it is established that obesity is linked to depression and anxiety, and that binge eating is understood to be a coping mechanism against loneliness, I wanted to observe the brain pathways associated with these feelings and behaviors,” Dr. Gupta says.

To delve deeper into these associations, Dr. Gupta and her team surveyed 93 women about their social connections, feelings of loneliness or isolation, body weight, and eating behaviors> participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MIR) scans to monitor brain activity responses to various visual stimuli, including abstract images unrelated to food and images of sweet and savory foods.

The findings revealed a significant correlation between self-reported social isolation and heightened food cravings, unhealthy diets, uncontrolled eating, and symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Specifically, MRI scans showed that participants who felt most socially isolated exhibited heightened activity in brain regions associated with cravings for sugary foods. Concurrently, these participants demonstrated reduced activity in brain areas involved in self-control related to eating behaviors.

Dr. Gupta says, “Social isolation can cause food cravings similar to the cravings for social connections. We show evidence for the fact that our social bonds are key in regard to how we eat unhealthy foods — especially highly calorie-dense foods and sweets.”

New Study Proposed Innovative Strategies to Curb Sugar Cravings

This study highlights how loneliness can impact eating behaviors and suggest new avenues for addressing sugar cravings. However, the research has limitations, such as its small sample size and the reliance on participants to accurately recall and report details about their eating behaviors, mood, and health.

Despite these limitations, the study provides compelling evidence that mood significantly influences food responses, according to Lu Qi, MD, PhD, a professor and director of the obesity research center at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans.

“The study finds brain reactivity particularly to sweet foods, which explains maladaptive eating behavioral changes among socially isolated people,” says Dr. Qi, who wasn’t involved in the research.

Dr. Qi adds that this insight offers a positive outlook, suggesting that individuals might be able to influence their eating behaviors by making changes in their social lives to reduce feelings of isolation.

One practical approach to mitigating sugar cravings is to build stronger social support systems. Dr. Gupta recommends pursuing hobbies, volunteering, joining clubs, or engaging in activities that increase social interactions. Over time, these efforts could potentially alter how the brain responds to food cues, making it easier to resist sweets.

“We can also use holistic mind-body interventions to normalize these alterations in the brain through meditation, journaling, and stress-reduction exercises,” Dr. Gupta says.

Understanding the link between sugar cravings and social isolation can empower individuals to modify their eating habits, Dr. Gupta adds.

“Knowing that being lonely makes you crave those high calorie foods — especially sugars — is empowering,” she reiterates.

The implications of this study extend beyond individual behavior, pointing to the broader social determinants of health. Loneliness, often seen as a personal issue, has far-reaching consequences on physical health and well-being.

The connection between social isolation and eating behaviors underscores the need for holistic approaches in public health strategies. Addressing social isolation could be a key component in combating obesity and related chronic diseases.