Loneliness, Food Cravings, and the Brain

Summary: A new study reveals the link between loneliness, cravings for high-calorie foods, and unhealthy eating behaviors in women, highlighting a significant brain activity pattern associated with social isolation. The research found that women feeling lonely show increased brain activation in areas related to cravings when exposed to images of sugary foods, alongside decreased self-control towards eating.

These findings underscore the complex interplay between loneliness, mental health, and eating habits, suggesting that recognizing and addressing feelings of loneliness could be key to breaking the cycle of poor diet and mental health outcomes. The study emphasizes the need for holistic interventions focusing on social connections and healthier food choices to mitigate the negative impacts of loneliness on well-being.

Key Facts:

  1. Women perceiving themselves as lonely exhibit more brain activity in areas associated with cravings for sugary foods and less in those related to self-control, contributing to unhealthy eating habits.
  2. Loneliness correlates with higher fat mass, lower diet quality, and increased levels of anxiety and depression among the study’s participants.
  3. The research points to a “vicious cycle” where loneliness leads to cravings and unhealthy eating, which in turn, may worsen mental health symptoms, highlighting the importance of holistic mind-body interventions.

Source: UCLA

A new UCLA Health study has found that women who perceive themselves to be lonely exhibited activity in regions of the brain associated with cravings and motivation towards eating especially when shown pictures of high calorie foods such as sugary foods.

The same group of women also had unhealthy eating behaviors and poor mental health.

Arpana Gupta, PhD, a researcher and co-director of the UCLA Goodman-Luskin Microbiome Center, wanted to research the negative impacts of loneliness, especially as people continue to be working remotely after the COVID-19 pandemic, and how the brain interplays with social isolation, eating habits, and mental health.

This shows a cupcake.
The women were then shown pictures of food versus non-food, sweet food versus non-food and savory food versus non-food. MRI scans recorded the participants’ brain activity while they viewed these images. Credit: Neuroscience News

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, Gupta wanted to observe the brain pathways associated with these feelings and behaviors.

“Researching how the brain processes loneliness and how this is related to obesity and health outcomes hasn’t been done,” said Gupta, senior author of the paper, which is published in JAMA Network Open.

The researchers surveyed 93 women about their support system and their feelings of loneliness and isolation, then separated them into two groups: those who scored high on the perceived social isolation scale, and those who scored low.

The researchers found that women who had higher levels of social isolation tended to have higher fat mass, lower diet quality, greater cravings, reward-based eating, and uncontrolled eating, and increased levels of anxiety and depression.

The women were then shown pictures of food versus non-food, sweet food versus non-food and savory food versus non-food. MRI scans recorded the participants’ brain activity while they viewed these images.

The researchers found that the group of women who perceived themselves to be lonely experienced increased activation in regions of the brain associated with a greater cravings to eat sugary foods, and decreased activation in the brain region associated with self-control towards eating behaviors.

“These findings are interesting because it provides evidence for what we intuitively know,” Gupta said. “When people are alone or lonely, it impacts more than how they are feeling; they underreport what they eat, their desire to eat, and their cravings especially for unhealthy foods.”

“If you have more cravings, you eat more and may have more anxiety or depression, which may lead you to eat more,” Xiaobei Zhang, postdoctoral researcher and lead author stated, likening this pathway to a “vicious cycle between unhealthy eating and negative mental symptoms.”

The researchers said holistic mind-body interventions may be a solution for breaking out of the cycle. Examples include being aware that you are lonely and, depending on the person, seek connection with others or practice self-compassion. Another suggestion is to make healthier food choices.

“Instead of grabbing that highly addictive, sweet, high calorie food that you’re craving, maybe trying to go for healthy foods versus those bad foods,” Gupta said.

Gupta’s future research will focus on looking at other biological markers such as the metabolites, microbiome, and inflammatory signatures associated with loneliness.

About this diet and social isolation research news

Author: Will Houston
Source: UCLA
Contact: Will Houston – UCLA
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Social Isolation, Brain Food Cue Processing, Eating Behaviors, and Mental Health Symptoms” by Arpana Gupta et al. JAMA Network Open


Social Isolation, Brain Food Cue Processing, Eating Behaviors, and Mental Health Symptoms


Perceived social isolation is associated with negative health outcomes, including increased risk for altered eating behaviors, obesity, and psychological symptoms. However, the underlying neural mechanisms of these pathways are unknown.


To investigate the association of perceived social isolation with brain reactivity to food cues, altered eating behaviors, obesity, and mental health symptoms.

Design, Setting, and Participants  

This cross-sectional, single-center study recruited healthy, premenopausal female participants from the Los Angeles, California, community from September 7, 2021, through February 27, 2023.


Participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging while performing a food cue viewing task.

Main Outcomes and Measures  

The main outcomes included brain reactivity to food cues, body composition, self-reported eating behaviors (food cravings, reward-based eating, food addiction, and maladaptive eating behaviors), and mental health symptoms (anxiety, depression, positive and negative affect, and psychological resilience).


The study included 93 participants (mean [SD] age, 25.38 [7.07] years). Participants with higher perceived social isolation reported higher fat mass percentage, lower diet quality, increased maladaptive eating behaviors (cravings, reward-based eating, uncontrolled eating, and food addiction), and poor mental health (anxiety, depression, and psychological resilience).

In whole-brain comparisons, the higher social isolation group showed altered brain reactivity to food cues in regions of the default mode, executive control, and visual attention networks. Isolation-related neural changes in response to sweet foods correlated with various altered eating behaviors and psychological symptoms.

These altered brain responses mediated the connection between social isolation and maladaptive eating behaviors (β for indirect effect, 0.111; 95% CI, 0.013-0.210; P = .03), increased body fat composition (β, −0.141; 95% CI, −0.260 to −0.021; P = .02), and diminished positive affect (β, −0.089; 95% CI, −0.188 to 0.011; P = .09).

Conclusions and Relevance  

These findings suggest that social isolation is associated with altered neural reactivity to food cues within specific brain regions responsible for processing internal appetite-related states and compromised executive control and attentional bias and motivation toward external food cues.

These neural responses toward specific foods were associated with an increased risk for higher body fat composition, worsened maladaptive eating behaviors, and compromised mental health. These findings underscore the need for holistic mind-body–directed interventions that may mitigate the adverse health consequences of social isolation.

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