New research shows that feelings of isolation and loneliness can make women feel physically hungry, even after a big meal

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
May 05, 2015
Corbis Images

The next time you feel the urge to snack, you might want to consider if it's that cake calling your name or an out-of-touch friend. A new study published in Hormones and Behavior found that lonely women felt hungrier after a meal than women with a strong social group did. (Why Is It So Hard to Make Friends as an Adult?)

In their research, psychologists at Ohio State University measured women's levels of ghrelin, a hormone that regulates hunger. After you eat, your ghrelin levels fall and then steadily rise, which is what drives you to eat the next meal. In the study, though, women who reported feeling isolated showed the fastest and highest spikes of ghrelin, and reported feeling hungrier that their more socially active peers.

Feelings of loneliness actually cause women to feel physical hunger, even if all their caloric needs have been met, the scientists say. "The need for social connection is fundamental to human nature," the researchers conclude in the paper. "Consequently, people may feel hungrier when they feel socially disconnected."

Interestingly, heavier women also experienced a fast spike in ghrelin, regardless of how connected they felt, but the researchers attribute this to the disruption of hormone regulation caused by their excess weight.

That women have an intense need to be connected and loved isn't surprising. But this connection to food is important, especially for people who already feel prone to emotional eating. The researchers point out that sometimes it can be more important to figure out why we're eating rather than to focus on what, because filling your stomach won't fill a hole in your heart. (Although over-booking yourself can be just as hazardous. How Much Alone Time Do You Really Need?)

But how you reach out to others is also important. Recent research from the University of Michigan has shown that social media (despite its name) actually makes us feel lonelier and more isolated from loved ones. So the next time you get a major chocolate craving, try reaching for your phone first-just make sure you use it to actually call your friend instead of checking what she's up to on Facebook.