Hungry for connection: Weight loss, eating disorders, and loneliness
The desire to lose weight is pervasive in our culture, and many people struggle to let go of it. There's so much pressure for us to look a certain way, and we are conditioned to stop listening to our bodies in an attempt to achieve it. Diet culture perpetuates this - massively. Even if you're not on a specific diet right now, chances are you're conscious of what you're putting in to your body and whether it's 'healthy' or 'unhealthy'. This way of thinking differs from the obvious "good/bad, diet/cheat" dichotomy associated with traditional diets, but it still moralises food - which in turn associates shame and guilt with particular foods. This is just a mask for dieting, another label for restriction, and a different way of preventing us from listening to what our bodies and minds need to be nourished and energised.
The way that we talk about our bodies is still steeped in fat phobia, but it's been masked under the guise of 'health'. We are told explicitly that losing weight is the key to reducing our chances of heart disease, diabetes, and other health risks. Yes, there's a correlation between our weight and these things, but this doesn't imply causation - that's Science 101. In reality, such correlations do not account for all the possible risk factors associated with these health problems - like genetics, comorbidity with other diseases, and the psychological and social implications that stereotyping, fat phobia, body shaming, and having a disordered relationship with food have on our emotional and physical wellbeing. We simply cannot ignore the mind-body connection, and we cannot explore physical health and wellbeing without also taking into consideration our emotional and psychological health. Holding this in mind, I believe that our desire to lose weight has deeper emotional roots, which I've come to understand through the lens of social connection and loneliness.
We are social creatures, and we thrive off of a sense of connection with others. When we don't experience social connection and interaction, this can have a major impact on our physical and emotional wellbeing. 'Genie' is a good example of this, and she has been studied in the realm of social psychology for decades. Born in to a neglectful and abusive home, 'Genie' wasn't spoken to, touched, cared for in fundamental ways. Her parents kept her locked in a room for years, until child protection services intervened. Without social interaction, 'Genie' was unable to develop basic social, communication, and emotional regulation skills which, even after years of therapy, ceased to fully develop. Equally, it's been shown that childhood physical abuse also results in psychological trauma, which disrupts attachment and makes it difficult to develop and sustain relationships later in life. Trauma also physically re-wires the brain, enlarging parts of the brain responsible for alerting us to danger and activating our fight-flight responses, which ultimately results in heightened anxiety.
The mind and the body are inextricably connected.
Now, I can't talk about the negative impact of social isolation without also exploring loneliness. Loneliness doesn't always result from social isolation - you can be completely alone and not feel lonely. But equally, you can be surrounded by people and still feel incredibly lonely. So, to keep things simple, I will define loneliness as the 'distressing feeling that accompanies the perception that one's social needs are not being met by the quantity or especially the quality of one's social relationships' (1). Now, bear with me while I throw some statistics your way to illustrate the importance and consequences of loneliness:
9 million people in the UK reported feeling lonely most or all of the time (British Red Cross)
42% of adults over the age of 45 experience loneliness in the US (2)
Loneliness increases our risk of early death by up to 50% (2)
Prolonged loneliness has been shown to accelerate physiological ageing; increase cardiovascular health risks (blood pressure, cholesterol, oxygen consumption); increase the risk of depression; and cognitive decline that may contribute to dementia (1).
Of course these are correlations and don't necessarily imply causation, but if we look at the overlap between what we've been told about obesity and the research on loneliness, it's pretty staggering. We are told that we need to watch our weight, and our waists, in order to reduce our chances of heart disease and early death - but there's just as much evidence suggesting that loneliness is equally detrimental to our physical health.
In my work with eating disorders, I've noticed that all of my clients experience loneliness - regardless of whether they're married with a family, in a romantic relationship, or whether they have a social network around them or not. Regardless of their social situation, the theme of loneliness always emerges. This makes sense for me, given how I approach and understand eating disorders. When you're struggling with an eating disorder, you have a voice in your head that tells you you're not good enough - and makes you believe that everybody else thinks the same of you. This grinds down self-esteem, confidence, and often results in social anxiety and withdrawal. To cope with this, you turn to food and trying to change your body in order to try and feel better, to try and fit in and feel more acceptable and loveable in your social world. But the thing is, that when you have an all-consuming relationship with food and your body, it becomes increasingly difficult to have deep and meaningful connections with other people. So it makes sense to me that loneliness is so pervasive amongst my clients with eating disorders.
When I apply this to weight loss, it is apparent that perhaps our cultural preoccupation with it could also be a reflection of our loneliness. We live in an increasingly fast paced world, and we spend more and more of our time on our phones and social media. It might seem counterintuitive, but a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in March 2017 found that young adults who spend more time on social media report higher levels of perceived social isolation. So it's possible our new technological ways of connecting to each other are leaving us feeling less connected and lonelier than ever. And maybe our preoccupation with our weight, food, and bodies is a way for us to feel connected to one another and soothe our loneliness. I mean, how many times have you commiserated with a friend or a loved one about your desire to lose weight, your latest diet, or your anxiety about wanting to look a certain way?
Equally, our preoccupying relationship with food and our bodies could also be a way of trying to cope with our loneliness, to suppress and forget about the uncomfortable feeling of emptiness that accompanies it.
In any case, loneliness has a profound impact on our social, psychological, and physical health and it must be addressed in order for us to grow and flourish as human beings. Finding new and more meaningful ways of connecting with self and others is something that gets worked through in eating disorder recovery. When my clients find a way of embracing who they are, connecting in meaningful ways to the world and people they care about, and find less self-destructive ways of coping with their emotions, the eating disorder becomes redundant. Similarly, perhaps if we can all find a way of addressing loneliness and deepening our connection with ourselves and others, dieting and our desire to lose weight will also become redundant.
If you want to read more about connection, belonging, and loneliness I highly recommend Brene Brown's new book "Braving the Wilderness" x
1) Hawkley, L. C. & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). "Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms". Annals of Behavioural Medicine, 40(2).