Diet therapy

Stay in ‘the loop’ for a brighter future

Diet and exercise are important to health but so too is having close relationships.

Belonging to a group or family, knowing that our existance really matters to other people is important to our mental and physical well being.

Loneliness and social isolation are becoming increasingly viewed as key risk factors to our health. Research has found that lonely people  have a greater chance of getting cancer 1, high blood pressure 2, disordered eating 3, heart disease, stroke and  with higher overall morbidity rates than people living in close relationships.4

 Who is affected?

While most research on loneliness is carried out on older people, social isolation affects people of all ages.
It could be argued that  growth in technology and our obsession with cellphones is driving loneliness to new levels, particularly for young people if subjected to cyber bullying or social media abuse.

According to researcher Clarke et al 5 if you already have social skills and use platforms such as Facebook and Instagram as a means to connect with others then social media can help build relationships. However if you passively spend a night browsing through  portrayals of other peoples seemingly more glamourous lifestyles, then your time might be better spent gaining self help instead of watching the lives of others.4

The loneliness experienced as a result of social isolation may be in the making from mid-life. A recent survey of 240 working men and women aged 47- 59 years found loneliness was less related to gender, age and socio-economic factors and more dependent on the way people lived. 6

The study found that people who reported social isolation had small social networks were engaged in few activities with others and were more likely to be living in single or divorced living arrangements than married.

Loneliness was characterised by feelings of low self esteem, a lack of emotional support, feelings of hopelessness, depression, anxiety, sleep problems and job strain. In this group it was found that loneliness was associated with imparied immunity factors and increased stress and blood pressure.7

Mental health

Lonely people are also more likely to suffer from dementia. A study in Chicargo of 823 older persons free of dementia assessed their degree of loneliness with a structure rating scale every year for five years. It was found that the risk of Alzheimers doubled in lonely people and that there was no change in loneliness over 5 years. In other words the lonely remained lonely 8

 Studies in France and Japan have found that Alzheimers Disease is less in people who are highly involved in social activity. 8

How does social activity help us mentally?

Because we are ‘wired that way’ The neurological basis of social relations lies in the limbic and associational cortical and subcortical regions of the brain.

These areas of the brain support episodic memory, semantic memory and other cognitive functions.

Episodic memory: relates to autobiographical events, times, places, associated emotions. A collection of personal experiences at particular times and places.

Semantic memory: is a collection of facts over a life time about general world knowledge and how it related to ones own life.

Cognition: this is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge, understanding thought, experiences and the senses.

When we interact with others we stimulate these memory and problem solving areas of our brain keeping us mentally active and alert. 9

Helping others

If social interaction is so crucil to better health what can be done to help people build better relationships?

Research at the University of Chicago has found four key elements that can reduce a persons risk of social isolation:

  • Improve social skills
  • Enhance social support
  • Increase opportunities for social contact
  • Address maladaptive social cognition. Which broadly means helping lonely people to rid themselves of negative thoughts about their self worth and how others perceive them. This may require therapy but can greatly improve their longterm health 10

A change in environment can also help people who are lonely to start afresh with a new job, moving to a town maybe closer to friends and family or engaging in more activities with people that make them feel happy.

Reaching out to single friends to share a meal, a movie, walk or bike ride are examples of things  that we can also do to help ourselves and others to stay connected as a community.

Five ways to well being

If you are wanting to overcome loneliness and to lead a more purposeful life these 5 keys ways to well being may be helpful . These simple steps, developed by the British think tank New Economics Foundation (NEF), are research based to help you maximise your potential (“mental capital”). 11

Connect with people around you

Have a minimum of three people with whom you have a close meaningful relationship e.g. friend, sibling, partner, grandparent etc

Be active

Find an activity you enjoy e.g.walking, swimming, cycling and slowly step up your time commitment to it.

Be Curious

Deliberately be mindful of what you are sensing, feeling, thinking and saying to yourself. The more control you feel about what you do, the better you will feel about yourself and life experiences. The more you watch your reactions to change, the better you will understand how to offset any negative impact they may have on your life.

Keep learning

Learning new skills increases your sense of self efficacty (i.e how well you think you cope with and manage change). Set realistic goals for yourself that are consistent with your values and a time frame in which to see them through.


Committing a random act of kindness to another human being e.g. picking up a dropped parcel, giving up your seat on a bus, reinforces your own feeling of self worth and contribution to the lives of others

Feelings of loneliness and social isolation often present alongside other health problems such as obesity, weight loss or gain, diabetes, eating disorders, insomnia and anxiety.

If you would like to discuss any of these dietary connections then contact us today


Other articles by Lea on similar topics:

Our attitude is key to better health

Increase self esteem to achieve your New Year goals

The support of friends aid weight loss

Building resilience

Challenging our self limiting factors

Break free of procrastination for better health

Find optimism for goal success

Hot tips to build commitment

Dietary help for depressed athletes


  1. Jaremka,LM. Fagundes, Glaser, R. Bennett, JM. Malarkey, WB. Kiecolt-Glaser, JK. Loneliness Predicts Pain, Depression, and Fatigue: Understanding the Role of Immune Dysregulation Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2013 Aug; 38(8): 1310–1317. 
  2. Hawkley LC, Thisted RA, Masi CM, et al Loneliness predicts increased blood pressure: 5-year cross-lagged analyses in middle-aged and older adults. Psychol Aging 2010;25:132–41
  3. 3 Levine MP. Loneliness and eating disorders. J Psychol. 2012 Jan-Apr;146(1-2):243-57.
  4. 4 Holt-Lunstad  J, Smith TB, Baker M, et al Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspect Psychol Sci 2015;10:227–37.
  5. 5 Clark, J. L., Algoe, S. B., & Green, M. C. (2017). Social network sites and well-being: The role of social connection. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Advance online publication.
  6. 6 Steptoe AOwen NKunz-Ebrecht SRBrydon L. Loneliness and neuroendocrine, cardiovascular, and inflammatory stress responses in middle-aged men and women. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2004 Jun;29(5):593-611.
  7. Grant N, Hamer  M, Steptoe A. Social isolation and stress-related cardiovascular, lipid, and cortisol responses. Ann Behav Med 2009;37:29–37
  8.  Wilson RSKrueger KRArnold SESchneider JAKelly JFBarnes LLTang YBennett DA. Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer disease. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007 Feb;64(2):234-40.
  9. Ybarra, O.  Burnstein, E. Winkielman, P et al. Mental Exercising Through Simple Socializing: Social Interaction Promotes General Cognitive Functioning. Personality and Social psychol. Bulletin Vol 34, Issue 2 2008
  10. Masi, CM. Chen, HY. Hawkley, LC Cacioppo, JT. A Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness. Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2011 Aug; 15(3): 10.1177
  11. Five ways to well being report.

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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