By Naveed Saleh M.D., M.S.
Eating alone can be a circumstance or a choice.
It’s Thanksgiving again, which is typically a time of celebration for most Americans. Nevertheless, it can be difficult to feel happy or grateful when you’re eating alone. For many, the effects of eating alone are probably more pronounced on holidays, which can be fraught with emotions and memories.
However, some people choose to eat alone—even during the holidays. Apparently, the aggravation of sitting with the family for several hours can be too much.
The topic of eating alone is a complex one, with an emerging number of studies examining its various aspects. Importantly, much of the research comes out of East Asia, where there appears to be a rapid rise in single-member households. Although eating alone is generally looked down on in both Eastern and Western cultures, other differences could confound the generalizability of results.
Let’s take a closer look at eating alone.
In a survey of 370 South Korean undergraduate students, Eunmi Lee, Yujeong Kim, and Haeyoung Lee examined the relationship between depression and eating alone. They found that eating alone was related to depression and type D personality disorder, or a tendency to feel negative and inhibited.
It should be noted that according to the authors, a strong stigma exists against dining alone.
South Korea has traditional collectivistic cultural characteristics of Asian countries. Therefore, there is a prejudice that if you eat alone outside, you are a loner who has no friends, and you are a person with low social skills. To maintain social relations, we try to eat together despite economic temporal costs and emotional consumption. Therefore, living alone does not mean eating alone.
Of note, the stigma of eating alone is apparent in western cultures, too. In a book titled Meals in Science and Practice, Patricia L. Pliner and Rick Bell wrote:
Commensal eating is deeply embedded in cultural consciousness and eating alone is an anomalous behavior. For most people a solitary meal is a highly undesirable situation and often is not considered to be a meal at all. Although individuals typically eat less when they eat alone than they do when they eat with others, for some people, eating alone provides an opportunity to escape public scrutiny and to eat as much as desired.
From a public-health perspective, eating alone is of particular concern among older men who live alone and lack the companionship of female family members. In older people, eating alone is tied to feelings of isolation, loneliness, and concerns about aging.
Results from the Japan Gerontological Evaluation Study (JAGES) suggest that in men aged 65 years and older, living alone and eating alone exert a synergistic toll on depression. Conversely, older women who ate alone were depressed regardless of cohabitation, and many chose to eat alone even when they could eat with someone in the house—perhaps due to conflict or personal preferences.
Research indicates that living alone leads to decreased food consumption and dietary quality. In one study, Georgina Hughes, Kate M. Bennett, and Marion M. Hetherington looked at food intake and food choices in 39 older men who lived alone.
Few of the men consumed enough calories, vitamins, and minerals. Men who cooked well ate more vegetables and had overall better health. Additionally, men who ate at least four servings of fruits and veggies per day had higher vitamin C levels, higher protein intake, and better diets.
Conversely, in a meta-analysis including 42 studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Helen K. Ruddock and co-authors found that depending on familiarity with other diners, eating with others increased the amount of food consumed. According to the results of two studies in the meta-analysis, increased intake could be due to longer meal times and perceived acceptance of eating.
Finally, some experts suggest that eating alone may be preferable for some—especially when dining in groups with tense power dynamics or with family or workplace hierarchies. In other words, some people choose to eat alone on the holidays instead of spending time with family members, around whom they may feel uncomfortable or anxious.