Life After Diets

My Loneliness is Killing Me (And You)

Dieter isolation and why cultivating relationships is key to your overall health

To kick off the new year, and in response to probably thousands of searches for tips on healthier living and behavior change and resolutions, The New York Times recently published an op-ed called “How to Be Healthy, in Just 48 Words.

The piece, by Dr. Yoni Freedhoff of the University of Ottawa, aimed to provide the simplest and most straightforward health advice possible, with very little of the filler that often gets added to flesh out articles on how to live your healthiest life.

He skillfully avoided a lot of the noise about fad diets, workout trends, and specific things that are “good” for you this month, but might be “bad” for you in a year, depending on what research is available and how it is funded. Dr. Freedhoff’s list included some old standards — “don’t smoke,” “avoid trans fats,” “exercise as often as you can enjoy.” All reasonably simple, almost obvious, advice for most of us.

What came as a pleasant surprise was his reminder to “cultivate relationships,” to hold our social and emotional lives up alongside the imperative of busyness and physical health and career goals, and to find them at least as important and worthy of effort.

We spend so much time worrying about our diets, our step counts, and the number on the scale. Are carbs good or bad? Should I try 12-hour fasting or 16? Is cardio or strength training better for weight loss? It’s easy to get lost in the weeds.

As a result, the impact of our emotional and social health on our overall well-being is frequently overlooked, often to the detriment of our physical health. According to research published in the last few years, we are currently in the midst of a loneliness epidemic.

Yes, an epidemic, and it may be killing us.

Once thought to be a concern for the elderly and others who often live more isolated lifestyles, current research shows that 1 in 5 people report feeling impacted by loneliness.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Our modern lifestyles are more connected than ever, with cell phones practically implanted into the palms of every human you come across in your day to day life, yet there is very little social interaction happening.

Over time, we’ve also lost a lot of the community spaces and infrastructure that once brought people together, including public parks. Abdul El-Sayed of Crooked Media recently dedicated an entire episode of his podcast, America Dissected, to this issue and the role that lack of investment in public infrastructure has played in loneliness as a public health issue.

And, whereas most people lived in family dwellings 50 years ago, single occupant households now account for up to 45% of housing situations in major cities.

And, lest you think that loneliness is a problem concocted by too-soft snowflake millennials, loneliness isn’t just making us sad — it’s directly impacting our physical health in ways you might not have imagined.

…the impact of our emotional and social health on our overall well-being is frequently overlooked, often to the detriment of our physical health.

Long-term loneliness and social isolation trigger hormonal increases, particularly norepinephrine, which mimics our fight-or-flight response to dangerous or life-threatening situations. This is one of the effects thought to impact health outcomes and affect mortality rates, including higher levels of serious physical conditions like heart disease, stroke, metastatic cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

A 2010 study on social relationships, found that individuals with adequate social relationships had a 50% greater likelihood of survival over 7.5 years. This was comparable to quitting smoking and had a greater impact on mortality than obesity or physical inactivity.

While the loneliness epidemic appears to be a universal phenomenon, people who’ve experienced disordered eating and diet cycling will tell you that this is a very common experience. Often, ironically, this social isolation is a key part of the disordered behavior itself. If you aren’t eating out or drinking socially, chances are you will be more likely to stick to your diet and have measurable results. But you’re also far more likely to feel lonely and cut off from the parts of your life you enjoy.

In other words, you’ll have discovered the (incredibly unsustainable) key to achieving success, but you’ll be far too unhappy in your loneliness to sustain it for long.

If learning and maintaining healthier habits, to lose weight, to achieve a performance goal, or to feel better, is important to you, you have to accomplish that within the structure of how you live your life right now, with the people you want in your life right now.

Very little has been written about loneliness in dieters, and most of what is available are studies that look almost exclusively at eating disorders and more extreme behaviors and the impact of social isolation on those populations. However, if we view disordered eating as a spectrum of behaviors varying in severity, it’s clear that social isolation, like restricting and disordered thoughts, is an issue for many people with a history of diet cycling and other disordered behaviors.

I have a long history of engaging in isolating behaviors in order to aid my dieting goals. I’ve skipped holidays to avoid big meals and endless desserts. I would make excuses about not feeling well to skip dinner with friends and only show up later, for a drink or a movie, or whatever the after-dinner plans were.

I didn’t want to be in a situation where I’d be tempted to eat more than I was “allowed” for the day or week. I’d make special allowances for big events, like weddings, but tried to be very discerning about what events qualified as “big.”

Over time, I’ve come to understand how detrimental this behavior was to my overall well-being. Despite multiple successful dieting attempts, I never managed to learn how to maintain my weight once I went back to my “normal” life.

Eventually, because we’re human, we crave social interactions. Cutting ourselves off entirely is unsustainable, teaches us nothing of value, and leads to adverse health consequences.

We aren’t meant to be so alone.

So, how do you manage that sometimes difficult balancing act of taking care of your physical, emotional, and social health?

If learning and maintaining healthier habits, to lose weight, to achieve a performance goal, or to feel better, is important to you, you have to accomplish that within the structure of how you live your life right now, with the people you want in your life right now. Rather than viewing social engagements as antithetical to your health and fitness goals, consider how they can empower you to reach them and keep you happier and healthier in the process.

Planning healthier social events and hangouts, such as workout classes, group runs, or just going for a walk with a friend is a great way to start. Chances are at least one of your friends has similar goals or is also trying to be healthier in their lives. Working toward those goals together will not only keep you both accountable, it’ll alleviate some of the stress and isolation that you might feel along the way.

If you can’t find other friends who are in the same boat, there are ways to connect with new ones who have similar goals. Meetup is a great way to meet people with similar interests. Consider joining a runner’s group or another hobby group.

It’s far too easy to isolate ourselves in our current environments and lifestyles, and seeking out new social relationships requires time and effort. Still, like other investments we make in our health, this one is likely to have significant returns in improved overall well-being and is certainly worth the effort.

Meeting new people who share your interests and your goals will keep you healthier and happier in the long run.

Find me on Instagram @life_after_diets and follow along on my journey to make diets the next millennial casualty.

Follow along on my quest to make diet culture another millennial casualty. Find me on Insta @life_after_diets

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