One of the most important aspects of health is having strong social connections. Yet diets that are frequently prescribed, supposedly to improve health, lead to social isolation by making it challenging for you to be flexible and enjoy social events that involve food. In this post, learn how dieting affects your social life and harms your health, and why flexible, intuitive eating supports wellness and longevity.
Many years ago I read the book The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest. It's a great read for anyone who is interested in learning more about health and nutrition with a focus on longevity and quality of life over weight loss/management and rigid diets. The author, Dan Buettner, a former National Geographic explorer, travels to regions around the world known for their long lifespans, including the Nicoya Peninusula in Costa Rica, Sardinia, Okinawa, Icaria in Greece, and Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda California.
There’s some stuff on nutrition in there, like eating more beans and a plant-centered dietary pattern. You know, the gentle nutrition stuff us intuitive eating dietitians like to talk about.
But most of all, the book focuses on social connectedness. In Loma Linda, Seventh-day Adventists frequently socialize and work with each other on projects to improve their community. In Okinawa, there's a tradition of forming moai, social networks that support each other in times of need. In Sardinia, people often spend the afternoon walking the streets and laughing together, especially older people. The research in Buettner’s book show that the cultures that not only live the longest, but also have the highest quality of life, are cultures that have social connection built into their daily practices.
Social Connection and Longevity
When most people think about living a long, healthy life, food and fitness are usually the first things that come to mind. And, you know, not doing anything dumb like sticking your finger in an electric outlet or jumping the fence at the zoo to take a selfie with a lion.
Certainly, when it comes to longevity, food and fitness play a role, but they’re not the only pieces of the puzzle, and not even the most important factors at that.
A couple years ago, I went to a day long seminar on longevity. The most interesting thing I learned was that social connection was the most important modifiable factor for longevity and quality of life. The researcher showed us how strength of connections more so than number of connections made a difference. On the other hand, social isolation increases the risk of premature death by 14%. The research showed loneliness increases blood pressure, disrupts sleep, decreases immunity, triggers depression, and increases stress hormones.
Social Isolation, Health and Inflammation
The research on the health effects of social isolation are pretty clear. Yet when you look at a lot of nutrition advice, much of it is socially isolating. That’s because most nutrition advice is actually geared at weight loss, not health, despite what it may claim. And no, weight does not equal health. Think of how dieting affects your social life. When you’re counting calories/points/macros, cutting out entire foods or food groups, or “eating clean,” it’s pretty hard to go out to socialize, because most of the ways we socialize are centered around food.
Social isolation is stressful. Beyond mental health, the stress from social isolation can have a significant effect on physical health too. Allostatic load is the cumulative load of stress on our bodies. That stress can come from physical factors, like poor nutrition (not eating enough and/or nutritional imbalance), overexercise, or sleep deprivation. It can also come from psychological stress stemming from experiencing trauma or oppression (sexism, racism, fatphobia, etc), work/relationship/financial stress, and of course, social isolation.
Each person has variable tolerance to stress, due to genetics and life experiences. Basically, we all have a “bucket” of different sizes that holds our allostatic load, and when that bucket is overflowing, that’s when we might experience symptoms such as inflammation, fatigue and chronic disease. Social isolation is like ladling water into our bucket, while social connection is like dumping some water out. In contrast, eating anti-inflammatory foods is like taking small spoonfuls of water out of our bucket, and if following an anti-inflammatory diet causes significant psychological stress, or inadequate nutrition, you’re just pouring cupfuls of water back in.
How Dieting Affects Your Social Life
When you're dieting, what do you do when a friend invites you for an impromptu date for a pizza and beer? Do you pass and hang out at home with a major case of FOMO? Do you go and order a salad, feeling sad and deprived the whole time while you watch your friends enjoying a tasty meal? Or do you go and just eat the pizza with a side of guilt and shame, distracted by what you’ll do tomorrow to make up for it?
When you're dieting, how can you fully enjoy a weekend away with your family? Will you spend hours of time and extra money preparing diet friendly food to bring? Or will you give up, say to tell with it, and spend the whole weekend backlash eating.
When you're dieting, will you be able to take a break and go out to lunch with coworkers? Or will you have to skip and eat your packed and prepped lunch alone in front of your desk?
All these examples sound pretty stressful to me. And in my opinion, any nutritional benefit you might get is outweighed by the inflammation caused by stress.
Thinking of going on a diet? In the infamous words of Dionne...
When I’m working with a client and ask them what’s stressful about the way they are eating, how dieting affects their social life is one of the top 3 things I hear. It’s so easy to convince yourself you’re doing the healthiest thing by staying home and cooking something “healthy.” Occasionally, that might be the case. If you’re going out to eat quite frequently, sure, your body might need some rest, water and veggies. It’s important to consider how dieting affects your social life. If your diet is leading to social isolation, your diet is not actually healthy.
Healthy eating is flexible eating. It allows for you to go out to eat with friends, fully enjoy a diet-food free holiday with family, and to travel without stressing about being off your diet. Human beings were designed to connect over food, and promoting social connection should be part of how we talk about and think of nutrition and health. There’s nothing wrong with having nutrition related goals (or intentions, as I’d prefer to call them), but if it means missing out or stressing over time with family and friends, then it might be a nutrition goal to reconsider.
This post was originally published 10/16. Text and images have been updated to give you the best content possible.