Plenty of people eat lunch at their desk or gobble down a takeout dinner between driving their kids to extracurricular activities.
While attention is often focused on seniors eating and living alone, Kate Mulligan, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Health, says the issue affects everyone.
“We see younger people — millennials, for example, or even younger — who are ordering in a lot or may not even have cooking facilities in their apartments,” Mulligan said.
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But is eating alone actually that bad for your health? According to research, the harms may outweigh the benefits.
How eating alone can harm you
“Eating alone is associated with a whole range of poor outcomes, and they’re correlated with similar outcomes for loneliness in general,” Mulligan said.
“When you eat alone, you’re more likely to eat standing up, you’re more likely to eat junk food and you’re less likely to think about mindful consumption.”
Because food can be a social experience, missing out on eating with others can make people feel isolated. One study out of Japan found that living and eating alone may increase the risk of depression in older adults.
Canada’s Food Guide also encourages people to eat with others. The guide says eating alone can lead to feelings of loneliness, especially for seniors.
The physical implications vary, but research suggests solo dining habits can negatively impact a person’s health.
One Korean report concluded that eating alone may be a potential risk factor for metabolic syndrome, a cluster of health problems including too much fat around the waist and elevated blood pressure. The condition — which can be caused by poor diet and lack of exercise — increases the risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes, HealthLink BC points out.
Eating alone can also affect what you eat.
A U.K. study found that older adults were at risk of having a lower-quality diet if they lived and ate alone.
Researchers found that being single or widowed was associated with a lower food variety score, especially for men. The study also found that lower levels of friend contact were linked to eating a reduced variety of fruits and vegetables.
Another Korean study concluded that people who eat alone have a nutritional intake below the recommended amount.
According to Mulligan, people may be more inclined to mindlessly eat or snack when they are by themselves compared to when they’re enjoying food with others. This can result in poorer food choices.
“We’re less conscious of what we’re doing when we’re alone or when we’re in a rush or in transit,” Mulligan said.
“With isolated seniors, for example, they often just don’t feel it is worth the effort to go through and prepare healthier foods when they’re alone.”
There’s also the impact on the planet. A recent article published in Quartz pointed out that solo eating can contribute to food waste.
Research shows that more than half of food produced in Canada is wasted. Furthermore, avoidable food waste in the country produces more than 22 million tonnes of climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions.
How eating alone can benefit you
There are certainly benefits to spending time alone and learning to enjoy your own company.
A recent article published in the New York Times unpacked the ways people can enjoy eating alone and highlighted its benefits: a sense of self-indulgence and needed quiet time.
Eating alone while travelling is often unavoidable and can be a great opportunity to connect with others.
Mulligan says for parents with young children, a meal alone can be an enjoyable break.
Still, this doesn’t mean solo dining should be the norm.
“I’m sure for some people and in some circumstances, it can be quite joyful to eat alone,” she said. “But that doesn’t make it healthier in the long run.”
To combat the effects of eating alone, Canada’s Food Guide suggests making plans to meet with friends or family members for meals and participating in community celebrations. It’s also a good idea to organize a rotating dinner event where people take turns hosting meals.
At work, try to eat lunch in a common space with a colleague.
Mulligan puts it this way: “The evidence is pretty clear: in general, eating with other people is good for us.”
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