Feeling isolated plays a key role in eating unhealthy food, researchers have said.

The team says its results show that feeling lonely “can cause food cravings similar to the cravings for social connections”.

The American study used MRI scans to explore the activity in participants’ brains when they were shown images of sweet and savoury food.

It showed that those participants who reported feelings of isolation had the most activity in areas of the brain which respond to sugar cravings.

They also had less reaction in parts of the brain which are responsible for self-control.

The study showed a link between loneliness and poor mental health, overweight, a decline in cognitive function and a number of diseases including type 2 diabetes.

Senior study author Arpana Gupta, an associate professor and director of the G. Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience at the University of California in Los Angeles, said: “While it is established that obesity is linked to depression and anxiety and that binge eating is understood to be a coping mechanism against loneliness, I wanted to observe the brain pathways associated with these feelings and behaviours.”

Commenting on the findings, Associate Professor Gupta said: “Social isolation can cause food cravings similar to the cravings for social connections.

“We show evidence for the fact that our social bonds are key in regard to how we eat unhealthy foods – especially highly calorie-dense foods and sweets.”

The study, which involved 93 premenopausal participants, also found that those who reported being socially isolated exhibited poor eating behaviours, including food addiction and uncontrolled eating.

Tips to try to overcome social anxiety include writing down what you don’t like about attending social functions, to help you tackle each issue.

Experts also advise to start small – see small groups of friends to start with, rather than starting with a big engagement.

Replacing each negative thought with three self-compliments or different ways of thinking can also help to banish negative thoughts, they say.

For example, replace “It’s too complicated” with “I’ll approach this from a different angle”.

Read the study in JAMA Network Open.

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