Overeating and Loneliness
Twin burdens…What can creative arts expression offer?
Lonely. Bored. Sad. Late at night, feeling alone, millions of people sit with these feelings. Unsure how to feel better, unsure how to feel full. And food seems to offer a comforting answer. A trip to the fridge, something tells us, will make us feel whole again. And then another trip. And then another. In the end, we don’t feel better. We feel worse. Usually this is called emotional eating. It is a search for something to make us feel better and less lonely, a search that too often takes us to eating to excess. Many of us resolve to be healthier and eat more mindfully, but sometimes feelings of emptiness and melancholy do not make this easy.
Overeating out of loneliness or stress is something familiar to many of us. Over one-third of American adults report engaging in this kind of behavior around food on a regular basis.[i] It’s notable, then, that a third of American adults are also chronically lonely.[ii] It’s in this way that two very worrying trends in public health, which we might even call epidemics, intersect. That is, loneliness and obesity are a dual burden for millions of Americans who eat to feel more emotionally full and fill the void that loneliness creates.
The prevalence of obesity in the United States has been well reported; more than two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, as well as one-third of American children. It is also well known that obesity increases risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, some types of cancer, and stroke.[iii]
It would be unrealistic and irresponsible to suggest that simply helping people feel less lonely would totally eliminate emotional overeating and alleviate the obesity epidemic. After all, extreme weight gain has a complex combination of causes including lifestyle, income, eating, habits, and genetics. Nevertheless, loneliness is a real and impactful factor, colluding with those others, in provoking overeating and causing obesity.[iv]
Many experts on disordered eating have been talking for years about the connection between loneliness and overeating. Ashley Turner, who provides counseling for emotional overeating, writes: “Loneliness is one of the biggest drives toward overeating. We naturally turn to food to nurture and nourish ourselves. It is the most obvious way to fill ourselves up. However, when we are lonely, what we are actually craving is a little personal interaction, intimacy, love or friendship, someone to share our lives with.”[v]
There is growing interest among researchers, too, about how loneliness and obesity may be linked. A 2014 study showed a link between binge eating disorder and loneliness, reinforcing what disordered eating already specialists know: when we overeat we are looking for nourishment that food cannot provide.[vi] Moreover, loneliness may not just cause individuals to eat too much, but to eat foods known to cause weight gain and obesity: a different 2014 study indicated that loneliness and social isolation leads to increased levels of sugar intake.[vii] We feel badly, so we eat badly, and then we feel worse. It is a vicious cycle. But can we break it if we address the feelings of disconnection at its core?
One important approach to increasing a sense of connection to others is to engage in certain types creative arts activities. For many, it’s as simple as making or sharing or receiving something creative. Involvement in creative expression of all kinds, from painting and dancing to gardening and cooking to simple engagement with beautiful artwork, is increasingly being used as a therapeutic treatment for a variety of conditions, including loneliness, depression, and anxiety. That body of scientific research suggests that we can reduce loneliness and its negative health effects through creativity. Among those health problems is overeating and obesity. Creative expression can help fill us up where food cannot.
“We overeat because we’re emotionally hungry,” says Laurel Mellin, Professor of Family Medicine at UCSF.[viii] Creative expression can feed that emotional hunger to help millions of Americans make healthier choices, become less lonely, and reduce obesity. Late at night, feeling alone, feeling disconnected, feeling sad, what if we reached for a pen or a paintbrush instead of a fork? What if we turned on some music instead of the microwave? We know that food doesn’t make us feel better. It doesn’t work. Creative expression does. Why not try?
[ii] Wilson, C., & Moulton, B. (2010) Loneliness among Older Adults: A National Survey of Adults 45+. Prepared by Knowledge Networks and Insight Policy Research. Washington, DC: AARP.
Be UnLonely with these Alternatives to Food:
The next time you feel “emotionally hungry”— you know, that lonely feeling that seems only food can comfort—try one of the exercises below instead (adapted from writer and editor Mary Jaksch). They’re perfect for your own personal “satisfaction,” or to take it a step further, spread the UnLoneliness by inviting a friend to join in with you.
- The Seven Game
Find the seventh book on your bookshelf. Open to the seventh page. Look at the seventh sentence on the page. Begin a poem with that sentence, and make it seven lines long.
- The Dictionary Game
Open the dictionary to a random page. Find a word you don’t know. Write an imaginary definition for that word.
- The Magazine Puzzle
Cut out interesting words, phrases, and images from a magazine. Put them in a bowl. Pull out two clipping at random, and write a short story or poem inspired by them. You can also draw a picture or create a dance!
- The Atlas Game
Close your eyes and place your finger at a random spot on the map of the world. Pretend you’ve traveled to that place, and write a postcard, a story, or draw a picture about your experiences there.
- The Ad Mash
Find two advertisements in a newspaper magazine or online. Write a poem or a simple song using only the words in the ads. Don’t worry about making something beautiful or good. Give yourself permission to it badly, and simply play.