We’ve all heard the English proverb, “Birds of a feather flock together”, meaning that people that are like-minded and of similar character often associate with each other. That parallel crosses into food habits and like we’ve previously shared, friendships and family can impact your waistline. Depending on the relationships people have with food, who you eat with can either reinforce healthy eating habits, or have the opposite effect. Who you eat with isn’t the only factor that can impact your health- new studies now show that whether you eat alone or with others can impact your heart health and potentially increase your risk for metabolic syndrome. It turns out that eating together goes beyond the immediate need to nourish the body and satisfy our need to socialize. How does togetherness during mealtime impact our bodies?
It is no secret that our peers and loved ones can have a powerful effect on our lives. Everything from our daily routine- exercise, movies we watch, books we read, places we travel to, foods we try, and it turns out even how much we eat. This social aspect is deeply rooted in our natural survival mechanisms; ancient hunter-gatherers shared food because it kept their family structures alive and that togetherness was necessary. A new study conducted by experts at the University of Birmingham, led by British and Australian researchers, showed that eating socially is a powerful indicator of food intake. The study revealed that often, people “match their behavior to others,” and that overall, food consumption rises when eating with others. Specifically, when around loved ones, people tend to eat more. People are often found to consume at least as much as the others in their group- which can lead to people eating much more than they typically would. Researchers found the reasons behind this trend to be:
- Eating with others is more enjoyable and enhanced reward from social eating could increase consumption.
- Social norms might ‘permit’ overeating in company but sanction it when eating alone.
- Providing food becomes associated with praise and recognition from friends and family, strengthening social bonds.
This is where social dynamics play a role. While people generally eat more while with friends and family, researchers from the University of Birmingham pointed out, “previous research suggests that we often choose what (and how much) to eat based on the type of impression that we want to convey about ourselves. Evidence suggests that this may be particularly pronounced for women eating with men they wish to impress and for people with obesity who wish to avoid being judged for overeating”. People dining with strangers were generally found to not follow the trend of consuming more than if they were eating alone.
The health habits of those we eat with can also play a role in what we eat- groups of health conscious friends may still eat more, but of generally healthy foods that will not negatively impact their bodies. Those less conscious of their food intake may eat more foods that can ultimately increase the risk of several health concerns.
While our social grouping while we eat can impact how much we eat, a study conducted in South Korea found that eating alone may boost the risk for developing metabolic syndrome. The grouping of conditions, which include high blood pressure, excessive abdominal fat, uncontrolled cholesterol, and other concerns, are heavily impacted by the foods that are consumed. The study found that men who frequently eat alone are at particular risk, with a 45% higher chance of becoming obese and a 64% higher chance for developing metabolic syndrome than those who always dined with others. Women who frequently ate alone were 29 % more likely to develop metabolic syndrome than those who generally have company. While the exact reason behind the findings isn’t yet clear, researchers suspect factors like stress, sleep, and sadness about solitude may play a role. One source pointed out that it may be “simply be a matter of not having anyone around to see you make less than healthy food choices.”
Another study released their findings in November 2021 and further underscored that eating alone can negatively impact your health, but in this study, heart health was the focus. Researchers used some of the same data from the South Korean study on food intake and metabolic syndrome, but instead grouped the participants into those that ate more than two meals alone, or those that ate more than two meals with others. Ultimately, older women who ate alone were found to have a higher risk for heart disease, and solo diners also had less overall knowledge about food labels and nutritional needs.
Results mirrored that of the original study in that people that ate alone were found to consume less, including carbs, dietary fiber, sodium, and potassium- this imbalance in diet alone can impact essential functions that support heart health. Researchers again suggest that solitude may play a role in the mental health of study participants, which can set off a domino effect on their health. Depression is linked to lack of exercise, increased alcohol consumption, and generally unhealthy choices when it comes to food. All of these factors can impact heart health. The American Heart Association also points out the importance of addressing mental health in relation as a risk factor for developing or managing heart disease- the AHA shares that “It’s a two-way street. People with depression are more likely to develop heart disease. And people with heart disease can experience depression. In fact, research suggests 15% to 30% of people with cardiovascular disease have depression – a rate two to three times higher than the general population.”
The findings from these studies highlight that who you eat with, their health habits, and how often you eat with others can all impact your overall health. What it boils down to though, is an awareness of how your habits can be impacted by external factors. If you find yourself stuffed after a family gathering, before heading to the next get together, set some guidelines for yourself. Use a smaller plate, instead of trying a little bit of every food available, pick your favorites of each grouping. Have a small snack before the gathering to avoid overeating due to being extra hungry. If you find that you make unhealthy food choices when with a specific individual, choose a different activity to enjoy with them. Instead of a meal, enjoy a craft or go for a walk. Or, learn to cook healthy recipes together. When preparing meals for the week that you may eat mostly alone, choose foods that nourish your body (try these easy snack ideas, for when you’re short on time), prepare enough food to last more than one meal so you don’t grab unhealthy foods to satisfy your hunger. Planning ahead and staying aware of you choices can go along way in ensuring you maintain your health regardless of outside influences.