Lonely in a Crowd

Lonely Brains Seeking Food

Do our brains respond differently to food cues when we’re feeling lonely or socially isolated? New research from UCLA certainly suggests this may be true. Researchers from UCLA published findings in JAMA Network Open last week from an analysis of functional MRI (fMRI) scans of 93 women with varying levels of self-reported social isolation. The women viewed images of various kinds of food, as well as pixelated control images during the scans.

Increased Reactivity to Food Cues

The researchers found that brains of women with higher levels of social isolation had increased activity in response to food cues – especially sweet foods. In addition, they found reduced activity in parts of the brain associated with conscious control of eating behaviors.

Further, they observed that these changes in brain function helped to explain an association between social isolation and other characteristics of these women. This includes maladaptive eating behaviors, increased body fat, and diminished positive feelings.

Lonely, Hungry Brains

Katherine Hanna recently published a review of the association between loneliness and food-related behaviors. She told the Washington Post she sees value in this research for understanding this relationship:

“Part of the problem has been this tendency to oversimplify the reasons we eat what we eat, which leads to things like judgmental attitudes or ‘Why don’t you just eat better?’. And of course, changing our eating is so much more complicated than just knowing or having enough willpower.”

Of course, this study has limitations. Like most fMRI studies, the sample is small. It is only women and the responses of men to these feelings and these food cues may be different. Some research already suggests this is true. Perhaps most important is the caution that this research is observational. It cannot tell us what causes what in these relationships.

Regardless, it offers insight to explain that, yes, when we feel lonely or isolated from others, our brains may respond differently to food. That knowledge can offer power for developing better coping strategies.

Click here for the study in JAMA Network Open, here for more from the researchers behind the study, and here for Hanna’s review in Appetite. For further perspective, this report from the Washington Post is quite thorough.

Lonely in a Crowd, photograph by Mike Wilson, distributed under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

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April 12, 2024

One Response to “Lonely Brains Seeking Food”

  1. April 13, 2024 at 5:35 am, gk said:

    Don’t let your brain stay lonely for too long, treat it to some nourishing foods and let it thrive! Your cognitive health is just as important as your physical health, so feed it with care and watch it flourish.