Loneliness Can Lead to Food Cravings, But Healthy Foods Can Provide Satisfying Comfort

Understanding healthy ways to deal with loneliness is just as important for your health as diet or exercise. A recently published study in Nature Neuroscience found that when people socially isolate the mid-brain regions are activated in a similar way that they do after fasting. The researchers concluded that social isolation causes social craving, similar to the way fasting causes hunger. The 40 participants, 18-40 years old, surrendered their cell phones and laptops to the researchers before spending 10 hours alone in a windowless room without email or social media access. They were able to play puzzles and computer games. Being in a windowless room for that long was probably more extreme than what most of us are experiencing as we socially distance. But what can we learn from this?

 According to Rebecca Saxe, the lead author of the study, even though most of the participants had satisfying social interactions their isolation had a big effect on their brains. It made them crave food, even if they had food in the room. On a different day, the participants fasted for 10 hours. After the 10 hours of isolation or fasting, the participants’ brains were scanned while looking at images of food, images of people interacting, and neutral images such as flowers. The researchers focused on a structure in the middle of the brain called the substantia nigra. It gave a similar “craving signal” when the participants saw the images of food and people socializing. Chronic loneliness is known to have a harsher effect on older people and adolescents, and the researchers are interested in discovering how isolation affects different age groups.

What Can You Do?

For now, it’s helpful to know that social isolation affects us in a way similar to craving food. It’s a good reminder about the importance of staying connected, as well as being mindful about what we eat and to not unconsciously reach for a bag of chips to satisfy our loneliness. Many of us have spent lots of time on Zoom this year. If you are lonely or have loved ones who are isolated here are some ways to socially engage without leaving your house.

1. Take a class. Well Connected (formerly called Senior Center Without Walls), is a telephone-based national program that offers free weekly activities, education, friendly conversation, classes, support groups, and presentations to individuals 60 years or older anywhere in the United States for English and Spanish speakers. There are activities occurring throughout the day, every day 8:00 am-6:00 pm, Eastern Time, depending on the day. Sessions run between 30 minutes to one hour. Well Connected also offers a program called Social Call, in which volunteers call participants for a weekly phone visit. For more information, email coviaconnections@covia.org or call 877-797-7299.

2. Do you like to play games? You can actually play Mahjong, Bridge, Monopoly, Clue, Poker, and more online. The 22 Best Online Games to Play with Friends During the Coronavirus Outbreak.

3. Connect on a senior chat room. Discussions groups found on sites like SeniorChatters offer a way for older adults to engage in different topics online. Use these tools to meet other seniors from all over the world and discuss your favorite hobbies.

4. Form an online book club. Schedule a virtual class reunion. Watch a movie with a friend or relative online as you chat about the show with Oculus Virtual Reality devices.

Healthy Ways to Deal with Loneliness

Healthy Snacks that Will Satisfy the “Loneliness” Craving

    • Hummus and/or Baba Ganoosh with celery and carrot sticks, Bell pepper slices, or any other veggies that appeal to you.
    • Turkey slices wrapped around raw veggies (Buy roasted turkey slices, available at most deli counters, as opposed to turkey preserved with nitrates.
    • Avocados contain healthy fats. Eat ¼ to ½ an avocado by scooping out with a spoon, or mash it up, add your favorite herbs/spices, and use as a dip for veggies or healthy chips.
    • Sliced apple with almond butter or tahini
    • Hard boiled eggs, or deviled eggs (see recipe)
    • Small handful of nuts—almonds, cashews, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, with an apple
    • Whole milk yoghurt and fruit
    • Bean tacos or tortillas, stuffed with tomatoes, greens, avocado, salsa
    • Chicken drumsticks
    • A scoop of tuna salad topped with sunflower seeds, chopped tomato, celery, fresh basil
    • ½ cup of whole milk cottage cheese with berries, or fruit of your choice, or ½ chopped raw veggies
    • Bake a sweet potato or yam the night before. Cut in half and top with cashews, ¼ cup whole milk yoghurt, cinnamon

Overall

Typically, when thinking of good health, we think about exercise, diet, mental health, and managing stress. However, loneliness and managing its effects do play into how well we are maintaining our overall health as well. While 2020 has been a difficult year for everyone so it is important to practice tips for not only coping with loneliness, but also overall health. Stay safe, be well, and enjoy your holidays!  

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