Max Carmody, MSc
Loneliness can cause weight gain, mostly due to emotional eating.
What is Loneliness?
Almost everybody feels lonely at times. There are several different interpretations of loneliness. One way to describe loneliness is that it is the feeling that happens to us when our need for rewarding relationships and social contact is not met. Loneliness is not the same as being alone, however. You can be alone, and be very happy even without seeing other people a lot. Or you can constantly be around people, or even in large crowds, but still feel lonely. Loneliness is a state of distress that occurs when a person perceives a gap between their desire for social connection, and their actual experience of it.
Feeling lonely and disconnected is a huge problem in modern society. In a 2018 survey by Cigna, of 20,000 adults, nearly half of those answering said that they sometimes or always feel alone. Covid has made the problem even worse, with everyone experiencing less social interaction that they are used to. Chronic loneliness has a serious effect on both physical health, and mental health.
Loneliness and Mental Health
Loneliness has been associated with many different poor mental health outcomes. It can either be the trigger that initiates a mental health condition or a response to a mental health condition.
Loneliness is deeply connected to depression. There’s a question of whether depression leads to loneliness, or whether loneliness leads to depression. A symptom of depression is social isolation. If you’re always lonely, your mood can suffer. Over the years, one tends to contribute to the other. Loneliness is a very strong predictor of mental health. If you would like to learn more about if depression can lead to weight gain, here is an article that I wrote on the topic.
Chronic loneliness can cause, or exacerbate social anxiety. Having a strong social support network tends to protect against anxiety, so if a person lacks that support it could lead to an increase in general anxiety levels.
Loneliness can lead to substance use and abuse. A lot of people numb painful feelings with alcohol or drugs, including loneliness. Loneliness is recognized as a risk factor in all stages of alcoholism. There have even been links found between loneliness and psychosis. Loneliness is linked with increased paranoid thinking and delusions, and experiencing psychosis also very likely leads to increased loneliness.
Loneliness and Weight Gain
Loneliness can contribute to weight and obesity, for a variety of reasons. First off, loneliness can trigger inflammation, and inflammation is a major contributor to weight gain. Inflammation is a normal process that helps us to fight off things that cause us harm, like bacteria and toxins. When threatened, our body releases chemicals that trigger a response from our immune systems, the inflammatory response releases antibodies and proteins as well as increases blood flow to the affected area, which helps our body heal. Chronic inflammation, however, is a bad thing. It leads to insulin resistance, which is a precursor to diabetes. Insulin resistance causes the body to have raised glucose levels, and accumulates fat in the liver, which lead to a vicious cycle and more weight gain.
The most common reason that loneliness leads to weight gain, is emotional eating. People eat to feel better and drown uncomfortable emotions. I am often guilty of this myself when I’m feeling bad. Food cravings often hit when we’re at our weakest point emotionally. Emotional eating can sabotage weight loss efforts and lead to weight gain. Some people eat less when they’re faced with intense, difficult emotions, but many people in emotional distress turn to impulsive, binge eating.
If you’re lonely, you also may very likely be bored. And boredom can leading to impulsive eating, as a way to fill the time. At least one study has found that boredom, such as completing a series of boring tasks, leads to increased food consumption.
If you would like to find out more about how mental health can affect weight, here is an article that I wrote on the topic.
If you are feeling lonely, it can be difficult to get out of that slump, but there are some steps you can take to feel less lonely. One thing to do is join a sports team. This is a great way to make a big group of friends, especially. You can volunteer. It’s a good way to meet people with similar values, working towards the common good. Adopting a pet can alleviate some loneliness. Having a furry little friend around can take you outside of yourself a bit. You can always take a class, that’s a good way to meet people. And importantly, remember to start taking the initiative. Rather than standing by and waiting for people to do things, make the first move, and ask them to do things.
If weight gain has been a concern to you, you can check out this book, that helped me to lose almost 6 pounds in 5 days.