A strange thing happened a year ago while picking up food from a local restaurant. Amid the rancorous laughter of servers and the blare of music at a D.C. bistro, I noticed the number of young people dining alone. In addition, those who were dining with others, seemed firmly affixed to phones, tablets, and cameras — even as their food set going cold before them. It occurred to me that the craze of social media and created an anti-social mentality that was often centered around food and eating out. But what happens to the body’s metabolism when the fellowship of eating with others loses its meaning?
In the 1960s, researchers raised concerns about the psychological and physical health effects of eating alone. The Atlantic magazine called eating together the quintessential human experience, and ways in which food and digestion are experienced, a form of ritual. When the meal, the company, and the experience are down to one person, does that really spell health concerns?
According to a recent study from Oxford Economics and the National Centre for Social Research, eating alone has been linked to problems including depression, a blockage of blood supply to the heart, obesity and developing metabolic syndrome: a combination of conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol that raise the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Nearly 45 percent of those examined in another study had an increased risk of being obese and a 64 percent increased risk of having metabolic syndrome, even after the researchers adjusted for factors such as age, cigarette and alcohol use, total weekly exercise, education level and occupation status.
“At the same time, eating patterns have become irregular, informal, and individualized in the form of more eating alone,” researchers for the journal Obesity Research & Clinical Practice wrote, adding, “Unmarried men who ate alone had the highest risk for metabolic syndrome, more than three times the risk of men who said they usually dined with someone else.”
Still, some clinicians note an increase in depression and mental health conditions associated with eating alone that also contribute to how much we eat, what we eat, and our moods before, during and after consuming food.
“It is difficult to separate out the impact of eating alone on physical, and in particular psychological, consequences due to the association between eating alone and other factors that [affect] physical and mental health such as loneliness, living alone and socioeconomic factors,” said Dr Katherine Hanna from the Queensland University of Technology in Australia.
Sam Dick of the Campaign to End Loneliness said eating alone can be a problem if it is not a choice.
“Choosing to eat alone is very different to having to eat alone,” he said. “A moment of solitude to enjoy a solo dinner is not the same as not having someone to eat with on a regular basis, which is the case for many older people. We must consider the long-term implications for the cultural movement of eating alone. Sharing a meal with others is one of the best ways to bond and build our connections.”
Helpful tips to avoid the consequences of eating alone:
Being present at the table with others — which means, no electronic devices, engaging in conversation with those around the table, and discussing the food you’re eating as you eat.
Ask to join others — Too often we would rather leave a coffeehouse than share a table with a stranger. A stranger is only a friend you’ve not yet met.
Ask others to join you — If you see someone eating along, ask if they’d care to join you. Sometimes the kindness of strangers is more nourishing than food.
Revive family meal time — Particularly in African-American households, the loss of shared meals has crippled the ability to gauge emotional need and support each other in daily life. Commit to one shared meal per day with household members, a one shared meal per month with extended family (where possible).