The researchers recruited 495 people to participate in their study about food restrictions and loneliness. The researchers recruited 495 people to participate in their study about food restrictions and loneliness. The researchers recruited 495 people to participate in their study about food restrictions and loneliness. (Photo: Wave Break Media / Shutterstock)

Why dieting can lead to loneliness

Skipping an office birthday party or a business lunch may mean less opportunities to connect.

Could losing weight make you less popular? That's the intriguing question asked by a trio of scientists in a new study.

"Food provides an avenue for people to communicate and relate to others, and food practices – from daily eating to celebratory occasions – are an important part of social interaction," they wrote in a new paper just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. But what if someone is on a diet and can't join in with what everyone else is eating? Or, perhaps in a more prevalent example, what if somebody is gluten-free or diabetic and avoids the office party serving cake for someone's birthday?

The scientists – Kaitlin Woolley and Ronghan Wang of Cornell University and Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago – interviewed hundreds of people for the new study, as well as conducted several different experiments in the field. They examined a whole host of eating habits – from people who dieted for health reasons (due to an allergy, weight issues, chronic illness, etc.) to those who avoided certain foods for cultural or ethical reasons (religious prohibitions, vegetarianism and so forth.)

What they found was that adhering to a diet may lead to social isolation. "Overall, while both food restrictions and loneliness are on the rise; this research found they may be related epidemics," the scientists wrote.

In their conclusion, they point out that they'd like to conduct further research focusing on specific demographics, such as baby boomers. According to the researchers, that population in particular is "more vulnerable to medically imposed dietary restrictions" and "are overrepresented in the growing segment of socially isolated adults."

For Fishbach, an Israeli psychologist, this new study builds upon her prior canon of research. Back in 2016, she discovered that eating similar foods at a business lunch promotes trust and closeness between strangers. Breaking bread with someone indeed brings people closer together. She even found that eating food from a shared plate fostered greater cooperation than eating the same food, but from individual plates. "It's a direct extension of that previous work," she told From The Grapevine about her new findings. "If food connects, then food restrictions might isolate."

couple sharing food Sharing food might be the ultimate icebreaker. (Photo: Everett Collection / Shutterstock)

Dr. Fishbach – who earned her undergraduate, graduate and doctorate degrees at Israel's Tel Aviv University – has published prolifically about the topic of motivation and decision-making. For example, she has studied why good people sometimes make unethical decisions, why we give to some charities and not to others and why failure is not the great learning tool we all think it is.

"It's an exciting time for the behavioral sciences because there's so much interest in society, and so many applications in a way," Fishbach told us. "Things that 20 years ago we were doing, and no one really paid attention except for our community and our students, right now there is much more media exposure. There is much more an attempt to apply these findings. So, it's a really exciting time for the social sciences in general, and the behavioral sciences in particular."

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Why dieting can lead to loneliness
Skipping an office birthday party or a business lunch may mean less opportunities to connect.