Social interaction and support from family, friends, and colleagues has long been associated with positive health outcomes. Having meaningful relationships helps us to manage stress and anxiety, improve physical and mental health, and increase overall quality of life. Conversely, social isolation, loneliness and living alone have been shown to negatively influence our overall health & wellbeing and increase mortality risk. Furthermore, emerging research shows that our eating environment has similar implications for our cognitive and physical state. A growing pool of evidence suggests that although what we eat is paramount, how we eat is might be as important.
Our fast-passed and often busy lives, combined with the overall growing trend toward single-person households (one in four Australian households are one-person households) result in an increasing number of people who do majority of their activities alone. In fact, almost half of people who live alone spend 90% of their free time alone. No wonder eating in front of your computer (or Netflix, depending on the time of the day) is becoming way too familiar for many of us. Let’s face it, even for families, diverse schedules and multiple responsibilities make coming together for a simple evening dinner a challenge.
However, there are important reasons for all of us to consider doing a little bit more to improve our eating environment. Results of several recent studies suggest that we are better off when dining in the company of others. And it is not just because we can split the bill. Starting from protective and supportive environment of family meals in childhood to a central role of mealtimes in care homes for older adults, eating together provides numerous opportunities to communicate, connect and simply enjoy this essential human activity. Moreover, the outcomes of eating together reach far beyond the immediate appreciation of a good time spent with others. Lack of company during meal times has been suggested as a strong independent factor associated with depressive symptoms. These can include feelings of low mood and low energy, or irregular sleeping. Interestingly, when it comes to our mental health, eating alone appears to be worse than living alone.
Furthermore, eating by yourself has been named as a potential risk factor for developing Metabolic Syndrome. Metabolic Syndrome is a dangerous combination of three or more conditions, including central obesity (excessive abdominal fat), glucose intolerance or insulin resistance, hypertension (high blood pressure), and dyslipidemia (high serum triglycerides and low high-density lipoproteins). The study showed that in men, eating alone was significantly associated with increase in central obesity and overall likelihood of Metabolic Syndrome. In individuals of both sexes, eating alone was also linked to skipping meals (another potentially negative health practice associated with under-nutrition).
The exact mechanisms of why eating with someone is better than a solo consumption of culinary delights (or microwaved dinners) are yet to be fully explained. It might be due to the combination of multiple factors that fuse together in a delicious dose of a health boost. Or it might simply be due to your aunty Doris (or Mrs Green from accounts), who never fails to remind everyone how “good for you” vegetables are, encouraging seconds of her famous Bean & Broccoli Bonanza. It could be because of a portion of fresh dad’s jokes boosting your immune system as you laugh your way through dessert. Perhaps, whilst we are waiting for further explanations on this fascinating topic, we all could do just a bit more to improve our eating environment. Here are a few simple things that might work:
- Invite your neighbours for dinner. Make it a regular thing.
- What about starting a community or neighbourhood garden? It might be a bit ambitious, but if you have some spare time on your hands it is definitely worth pursuing.
- Organise weekly lunch meetings with a group of your colleagues. Make it fun – choose random restaurants, or make it competition-based decision.
- Start a work lunch club where each member is to organise a lunch for everyone at regular intervals (you all save money this way, too). There is nothing like an idea of eating somebody else’s culinary delights to drag you away from your computer screen at lunch hour.
- Organise weekly dinners with your friends. Remember potluck dinners? Let’s make these trendy again!
- Many volunteering positions assume social interaction and social eating. Enjoy yourself whilst helping others, animals or the environment.
- And as a last resort, maybe next time when you are ordering your meal to go, stay and eat in. Strike up a conversation with someone next to you. Who knows, it might will be the beginning of a healthier you.
If you have any suggestions or ideas on how to improve an individual or group-eating environment, we would love to hear from you.