Elaborate feasts are a centerpiece of the holidays, but all that food can make people with restricted diets feel left out, a new study suggests.
People whose allergies or health, religious or cultural norms keep them from sharing the meals with others can leave them lonely, researchers say.
“Despite being physically present with others, having a food restriction leaves people feeling left out because they are not able to take part in bonding over the meal,” said researcher Kaitlin Woolley, an assistant professor of marketing at Cornell University.
A review of seven previously published studies found that restricted diets predicted loneliness among both children and adults.
In one experiment, for instance, when people without food restrictions were given restrictions, they felt lonely. This suggests that these feelings aren’t the result of other issues or just picky eating, Woolley said.
More evidence came from people who attended a Passover Seder. When they were reminded that they couldn’t eat leavened foods, participants felt lonelier. But within their restricted group, they felt a stronger bond.
In earlier research, Woolley found that strangers felt more connected and trusting when they shared the same food. Also, sharing food from the same plate increased cooperation between strangers.
But restricted sharing makes people suffer “food worries,” she said. They’re concerned about what they can eat and if others will judge them for not fitting in.
Food restrictions started in childhood are continuing into adulthood, and some adults are opting for their own restrictions like gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan diets for health or ethical reasons, the researchers noted.
“This is a problem that I don’t think people are quite aware of,” Woolley said in a Cornell news release, “and that has implications for people’s ability to connect with others over eating.”
For more on loneliness, head to the U.S. Health Resources Administration.