Mental Health Week: Food as Community in Reducing Loneliness


This year’s theme to mental health awareness week is on ‘loneliness’, something which affects a great number of us. Loneliness and isolation can have a significant impact on our mental and physical health, and are associated with an increased risk of other mental health related concerns.


However, there is an important distinction to make between loneliness and social isolation. For example, you can be isolated and not feel lonely, while equally you can be surrounded by others and feel lonely. Loneliness can have a variety of different causes which are often completely unique to us as individuals. Some examples include, starting a new job, experiencing a bereavement, experiencing a relationship break-down, moving to a new area or going through a change in your life. No one event or experience leads to loneliness, and (picture credit; Fauxels)

sometimes there is no definitive or identifiable cause, yet the experience is just as real and valid.


Loneliness can impact our health


It may not be immediately obvious how or indeed why loneliness has an impact on our health. However, research, particularly in older adults, which has explored this connection have linked loneliness with reduced nutrient intake, reduced appetite as well as tendency to eat less (1). This could be due to a lack of motivation for cooking and eating, as well as a lack of social cues, such as shared meal experiences, for eating.


Equally, a systematic overview of research explored the wider consequences of social isolation and loneliness. It concluded that there is a significant association between social isolation and loneliness with an increase in all-cause mortality, as well as association with poorer mental health outcomes (2). It is not clear exactly why this may be, and there is likely to be wider associations between health behaviours, socio-economic consequences, loneliness and health outcomes.


How food can help


There are a variety of ideas on how food can help to support someone when they are experiencing loneliness. You may have a picture or idea of a Bridget Jones-esq individual sat at home eating ice cream, however, this isn’t necessary always the case.


Food and social interaction are intertwined. Food can be an accessible and universal way to connect with others. Eating together, cooking for others, enjoying food at a celebration, or sharing a meal someone else has prepared for you can all be something that bring a sense of togetherness.


‘Social eating’ is a universal experience for many of us, and sharing meals with family and friends can also have benefits to our wellbeing, with those who eat socially more often feeling happier, and more satisfied with life (3).


Additionally, another topic with is mentioned when thinking about food and loneliness is comfort eating. Comfort food is a topic filled with debate. Anecdotally, we all have foods which, for one reason or another feel comforting, they may bring us joy, or help us when we are feeling low. They tend to relate to memories, and may have a nostalgic or sentimental appeal. Comfort foods vary hugely between us, and are usually not defined by their healthfulness, nutritional profile or even taste in some cases.


Why comfort foods are ‘comforting’ is another topic entirely, without a clear or definitive answer, but some research suggested that comfort foods give us a sense of belonging, and help to elevate feelings of social isolation (4).


When we are feeling lonely, food can offer support, bring a sense of togetherness and community. However, we can also lack motivation to cook or eat, potentially also struggling to eat a broad range of foods. Here are some ideas of managing food and loneliness.



Tips


- Share how your feeling with someone else. Opening up to someone can be extremely challenging, and at times a little scary. However, sharing how we feel can help to reduce the feelings of loneliness by bringing a sense of connection and shared understanding.


- Eating regularly. Getting enough food is important for our mood stability. These don’t have to be large elaborate meals, but could be smaller dishes to keep yourself going throughout your day. This also helps us to get a broad range of nutrients into our diet.


- Share food with others. Whether it’s in a restaurant, at home or at someone’s birthday, sharing food with others in a wonderful way to come together and form a community. Equally, if these aren’t available to you, it could be something as small as having dinner with your flatmate or family, in person or over facetime.


- Comfort foods can help. When you’re feeling low, cooking for yourself can be incredibly difficult. For times like these turn to your store cupboard, to things that bring you joy, bring up happy or nostalgic memories.


- Engage in self-care activities that are individual and sustainable. Loneliness can sometimes impact how we think and feel about ourselves. It’s important to remember in these times that you are worthy and deserving of taking care of yourself.


Why not learn more ways to improve mental health? Click here!


References:


1. Yu D. Loneliness and Malnutrition. Bda.uk.com. Available from: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/loneliness-and-malnutrition.html

2. Leigh-Hunt N, Bagguley D, Bash K, Turner V, Turnbull S, Valtorta N et al. An overview of systematic reviews on the public health consequences of social isolation and loneliness. Public Health. 2017;152:157-171.

3. Dunbar R. Breaking Bread: the Functions of Social Eating. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology. 2017;3(3):198-211.

4. Troisi J, Gabriel S. Chicken Soup Really Is Good for the Soul. Psychological Science. 2011;22(6):747-753.